Thursday, November 30, 2006

Review - Hollywoodland

When Matt Damon and Ben Affleck collected Oscars for their Good Will Hunting screenplay in 1998, they both seemed to have startlingly bright futures ahead of them, but it didn’t really work out that way. Damon has done pretty well for himself; he has slowly matured into one of the best young actors currently working, he has a successful action franchise under his belt, and he has worked with Spielberg, Soderbergh, Scorsese and De Niro.

For Affleck, things haven’t run quite so smoothly. He was doing OK for a while, giving decent low-key performances in films like Boiler Room, Changing Lanes and Shakespeare in Love, but in the space of a few years a number of poor film choices and his very public relationship problems turned Affleck into something of a joke. A run of films which includes Pearl Harbour, Daredevil, Paycheck, Gigli, Jersey Girl and Surviving Christmas is likely to do lasting damage to anyone’s career; and with the rather wooden acting style and limited emotional range he had exhibited previously, who would have dared to predict an upturn in Affleck‘s fortunes anytime soon?

Well, things can turn around very quickly in Hollywood, and Hollywoodland is a film which may well change people’s perceptions of what Ben Affleck can do. He plays George Reeves, the man who is remembered for just two things: the fact that he played Superman on TV in the early 1950’s, and the fact that he committed suicide a few years later - or did he? As far as the LAPD were concerned, the out-of-work Reeves, depressed by the downward spiral of his career, shot himself in the head on June 16th 1959 while his friends partied downstairs; but there has always been more than a hint of mystery and suspicion surrounding the death of Superman, and it’s this uncertainty which Hollywoodland tries to exploit.

Did George Reeves really pull the trigger? Or was it pulled by his fiery young fiancée Leonore (Robin Tunney) during one of their many arguments? Alternatively, perhaps Reeves’ death was ordered by MGM Vice President Eddie Mannix (an effectively gruff Bob Hoskins); after all, his wife Toni (Diane Lane) made no secret of her long-term affair with Reeves. These are a couple of the scenarios which run through the head of sleazy private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a semi-fictional adjunct to Reeves’ tragic true story, who is hired by the star’s mother to investigate his death. After years of dealing with dull little infidelity cases, Simo sees this as his big break ,and he begins using every trick in the book to get his name in the papers; but as the investigation continues to bring Simo nothing but trouble, his emotional state becomes increasingly strained.

Writer Paul Bernbaum and director Allen Coulter are both making their feature debuts here after years spent in television; and they have shown plenty of ambition in their approach to Hollywoodland, attempting to tackle this story on two fronts. One half of the picture follows Reeves, from the night he met Toni Mannix to the night he died, while the other follows Simo’s investigations; but in splitting their narrative down the middle Hollywoodland’s makers have presented themselves with structural problems they never satisfactorily overcome. Coulter’s transitions between the film’s two time periods tend to be clunky and jarring, lending the film an exasperatingly inconsistent and unfocused feel. But the biggest problem with Hollywoodland’s twin strands is the fact that one is half of the film so much more engaging and involving than the other; and while the Louis Simo scenes splutter and stall, the scenes concerning the life and death of George Reeves take flight.

“He was handsome” claims Reeves’ agent Art Weissman (Jeffrey DeMunn), “Not like these mumblers we have today - a movie star!”; and the casting of Affleck as Reeves couldn’t be better. His square-jawed, blandly masculine persona is beautifully suited to the part of Reeves, but Affleck also pulls a surprise by adding depth and weight to his character. He’s charming, witty, modest, and he also brings a touching sense of wounded pride to his role as a man slowly realising the limits of his own mediocrity. He also shares a sizzling chemistry with Diane Lane, who is devastatingly good as Toni Mannix, and it’s Hollywoodland’s depiction of their evolving relationship which lights up the movie. Initially, Reeves believes Mannix can help his career, and she sees him as a relief from her dormant marriage; but as Superman makes Reeves a star, Lane movingly expresses Toni’s fear of losing her young lover with an unflinchingly brave and complex piece of acting.

There are some wonderful scenes in Hollywoodland - Reeves’ discomfort when hecklers disrupt a screening of From Here to Eternity, or the flash of panic in his eyes when The Man of Steel is confronted with a real gun - but they all occur when Affleck and Lane are on screen, leaving the picture feeling fatally lopsided. Nothing in the Louis Simo story ever threatens to grab the viewer in the same way; it’s not that it’s bad - there’s certainly a bit of fun to had as Simo charms and finagle his way through the investigation - it’s just that it never really seems to serve any purpose. While the George Reeves story has a definite and quite involving arc, the lack of resolution to Simo’s narrative leads the film in ever decreasing circles, and it doesn’t help that many of the situations the detective finds himself in feel clichéd and unimaginative. Brody can be a fine actor, and he’s well suited to the role of the cocky Simo, but his character is sketchily written, and the time spent on his relationship with his ex-wife and son feels like time wasted.

The difference in quality between the two halves of Hollywoodland is exacerbated by the fact that Coulter gives more screen time to the Simo narrative than the Reeves one, which means the two most interesting characters in the film are pushed into the margins. I’m not sure Affleck’s acting chops would have stretched to carrying a full-on George Reeves biopic, but I wish Coulter had at least shifted the balance of the picture the other way, and minimised the amount of time spent with Brody’s private eye. But nothing ever really coheres in this disjointed affair, and at times the Simo and Reeves segments could be completely different movies. Coulter sloppily allows a number of scenes to run on longer than they need to, and the end result is an irritating patchwork in which the standout moments are too scattered and disconnected to have any lasting impact.

It seems Hollywood just doesn’t seem to know what to do with Superman these days. After Bryan Singer made a laudable but massively flawed attempt to bring the character back to the silver screen earlier this year, Hollywoodland is a similarly unwieldy offering; another picture which overreaches itself and displays feet of clay when it really counts. While George Reeves’ life ended with the bang of a gun, Coulter’s picture ends with a whimper. Simo considers the various suicide/murder theories in the final third, but the film refuses to show any conviction in settling on a scenario, and Coulter allows the story to drag itself to a deflating climax. Ultimately, Hollywoodland leaves us none the wiser about the way George Reeves departed this life, and it only occasionally sheds light on who he was when he was alive. You’ve got to feel pretty sorry for the guy - four decades after his death, and he doesn’t even get to be the lead in his own life story.