Hollywoodland

(2006) ** R
126 min. Focus Features. Director: Allen Coulter. Cast: Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins, Kathleen Robertson.

At least one generation of American boys learned to believe a man could fly by thrilling to The Adventures of Superman on the relatively new novelty of home entertainment. For the better part of the 1950s, George Reeves played the role that, for better or worse, would define his career, but the television series died an unnatural death when its star was found shot to death in the summer of '59.

Reeves' untimely demise, officially ruled a suicide, becomes the central mystery of Hollywoodland, a moody but haplessly uninvolving neo-noir about L.A. dreams gone wrong. Adrien Brody plays the fictional Louis Simo, a gum-chewing gumshoe hired by Reeves' mother to prove foul play in her son's death. Was he, in fact, offed by jealous ex-lover Toni Mannix (Diane Lane)? Perhaps her husband, MGM studio head Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), pulled the strings. Might Reeves' last fling Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) have had it in for him?

Given that this fictionalized film has no new evidence to present, a larger question might be: why should we care about Hollywoodland? Screenwriter Paul Bernbaum consigns the film to being a mystery with no solution, which leaves Allen Coulter to try to salvage the story by emphasizing character-based drama. The gambit might have worked, but for the casting of Ben Affleck as Reeves.

In what may be the single most damaging performance in any film this year, Affleck puts on extra pounds, a fake honker, and a horrifyingly bad debonair act in an attempt to personify the late actor. A dialect that suggests a Saturday Night Live parody of 1930s acting is the final straw, rendering the unwatchable performance unlistenable. Due to the circumstances of his final days (fudged for dramatic effect), Reeves remains remotely sympathetic. As the kept man of Toni Mannix, Reeves suffers from wounded male pride, a situation exacerbated by his typecasting as a kiddie hero.

Bernbaum plays parallel games with the character of Simo, whose son is distraught over Reeves' suicide. Unnerved that he can't be a hero to his own child—and drawn down into the muck he's raking—Simo wallows in cynicism and alcohol. "Nobody has magic powers," he drunkenly counsels his son. "You gotta be tough." Simo's slippery morality adds to the picture's faint whiffs of Chinatown; though he's "just tryin' to turn a buck," he's unafraid of authority and won't be intimidated or bought off of the case.

Coulter, who has directly extensively for TV shows like The Sopranos, ably stylizes the material, but can't find a rhythm to correct a lazy and ungainly flashback structure that shifts haphazardly between Simo's story and that of Reeves. Getting the audience through the picture falls mostly to the non-Affleck cast members, with Lane a standout as the fading beauty riding out a marriage of convenience and watching her dreams slowly die (also look out for the unsung Jeffrey DeMunn, who endears himself as Reeves' manager Arthur Weismann).

The film's kids learn the hard way that the apparently mighty fall often and sometimes fatally, but it'll be old news to Hollywoodland's "inside-baseball" movie-buff audience. With no useful lessons to impart and a world-classless performance by Affleck, this distortion of Hollywood history fails to justify its existence.

[For Groucho's soundtrack review of Hollywoodland, click here.]

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