Judging from Superman Returns’ box office receipts, America has had enough of Superman. While the hero does fantastic business overseas, he’s stuck settling for barely profitable here in the US. So maybe now’s not the time for a George Reeves biopic. Fortunately, that’s not what Hollywoodland is. At least not entirely. Instead, it’s a murder mystery that explores the TV Superman’s untimely demise from two completely separate perspectives, wrapped in two distinctly different stories told in parallel within the one movie.
In the first, the film tells the story of Reeves’ (Ben Affleck) rise to pseudo-stardom in the 50s and then his subsequent struggle to find without his Superman cape. It’s the story of a man living two different lives, a public one where he happily embraced his Superman persona, and a private one where he was completely miserable.
In the film’s second storyline, hard boiled private-eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) investigates George Reeves’ death. At first he does so at the behest of Reeves’ mother, later he does it for himself. The police believe the case to be an open and shut suicide; Simo tackles it as a possible murder, working the national news media to force the cops into re-opening their files.
Hollywoodland’s first story moves towards Reeves’ demise, working forward while the second works backward from his point of death to figure out how he died. Brody’s Simo deconstructs Reeves’ life by creating likely scenarios that point towards murder while Affleck’s understated portrayal builds Reeves as a man with unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Suffering personal and private disappointment he’s unhappy, discontented, and he seems like a guy who just might have offed himself.
After a busy career in television this is Allen Coulter’s first stab at directing a significant feature film, and while his picture doesn’t ooze with big screen visual flair, it’s dripping with steady self-assuredness. Where others might try to weave these two separate stories together, Coulter is confident enough to put them directly at odds with one another. Simo’s version of what he believes to be the truth bears little resemblance to the life we watch playing out on screen. As he fights to uncover a conspiracy, we’re watching a charming, funny, sometimes sad man going through the motions of life with an air of almost inevitability. In doing so, Coulter doesn’t solve of Reeves’ death, but he does explore every little nook and cranny of his mystery.
Brody and Affleck split the film’s screen time almost 50-50, though they don’t spend their time together. Adrien is a scene stealer as the weasely, media whoring Simo while Affleck is more subdued as Reeves. Both men fight their private demons. For Simo it’s a tumultuous home life, for Reeves it’s his constant battle for recognition and independence. If there’s any intersection between the stories told in the film, it’s in these men, suffering in their own way and looking for answers to life’s problems. By the end of the film you’ll feel like you really understand Reeves, but Simo remains something of a puzzle. When Reeves’ mother stops paying, why does he keep investigating? Is it because he loves the publicity, or is it because he, like so many, simply refused to believe Superman could shoot himself in the head? Ultimately, figuring out Louis Simo proves as invigorating as uncovering the mystery of George Reeves’ life.
Hollywoodland is one of the most complex, original, based on a true story movies of the year. By avoiding the usual pitfalls of other straight biopics and turning Reeves’ life into a multi-layered, gumshoe murder mystery, it achieves something altogether unique. Coulter’s compelling film is thick with intrigue and full of energy as it plows headlong into a heavy exploration of fame and failure in Hollywood.
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