Even today, jokes about the suicide of TV’s first Superman, George Reeves, are aplenty. Zingers such as “Now wasn’t he supposed to be bullet-proof” and “looks like he really wasn’t faster than a speeding bullet…har-de-har-har” are a dime a dozen. The thing is, George Reeves merely played Superman and behind the scenes lay a real man who had real aspirations in real life that never really included being a children’s television icon. One probably expects “Hollywoodland,” the interesting debut feature from television director Allen Coulter, to be your typical biopic about an apparently clean cut television personality with deep, dark secrets that eventually eat him alive. It’s not. Well, maybe it is a little. Yet the film never paints Reeves as a dark and haunted man with “secrets” ala “Auto Focus.” Instead the film manages to draw the viewer in by combining a biography with classic elements of mystery, suspense and family drama.
In “Hollywoodland,” we meet George Reeves (Affleck), a young go getter in Hollywood who wants desperately to be in with the in-crowd. He cozies up to a sexy older woman named Toni (Lane) and without knowing too much about her, sweeps her off her feet and into his bed. He soon finds out that Toni is Toni Mannix, wife of MGM Vice President, Eddie Mannix (Hoskins). While countless men and women have slept their way into stardom, screwing the wife of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood isn’t the correct way to do it. But “Hollywoodland” isn’t just a biopic about Reeves, it’s also the story of a dingy, down and out detective named Louis Simo (Brody) who’s the equivalent of an ambulance chaser. He gets involved in the “mystery” surrounding Reeves’s death simply to turn a buck, knowing if he turns anything up he’ll become front page news. Thus the twin storylines of “Hollywoodland” are laid out.
At first it’s kind of difficult to adjust to the two stories being told here. The Reeves story is basically a flashback on Reeves’s life as a kept man and later, a star of miniscule stature. Meanwhile we’re following Simo as he fumbles about town trying to act like a detective while missing clues at every turn. Yet as the film moves forward, one realizes that there are parallel tales being told here and both are about men making defining decisions about where their lives will go while trying to grapple with the path that they’ve chosen. Reeves jokes about the adulation he receives and vaguely enjoys it, but soon realizes his fifteen minutes of fame has run out. Simo clumsily juggles his ex-wife (Parker) and confused son with work and sketchy detective work that helps him learn more about Reeves the real man, not the Superman.
“Hollywood” land features an excellent cast all of whom shine. Affleck as Reeves has never seemed more charming and Brody’s Louis Simo is pretty much a scumbag who still manages to gain our empathy. Both actors take control of their roles and without their excellent performances, the dual stories simply will not work. I was glad to see Affleck lay down a performance that reminds people he can act when given good material and as mentioned, Brody makes you care about Simo even though there isn’t much to like. The supporting cast is equally stellar, especially Lane as Toni, a sad woman trying to hold onto her youth and Hoskins as her doting husband who seems capable of ripping someone’s head off at any moment. Without sounding much more cliché here, I have to say both performances are deftly nuanced.
Also great are Robin Tunney as Reeves’s gold-digging fiancé Leonore Lemmon, a sassy fifties wannabe and Molly Parker’s subtle performance as Laurie Simo is one of those roles that’s done so well you almost miss it. Director Coulter also pulls off some terrific scenes that mix comedy and suspense to great effect. I also like the way he creates separate worlds between the two main characters even though the entire film takes place in roughly the same era. It’s an excellent film debut for a director with serious TV credits (“The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “Sex and the City”).
While there is much to like and admire about “Hollywoodland,” it just feels too darn long. The film ends about five times before it really ends and what’s most frustrating about that is it doesn’t need to. I don’t think it’s giving much away to say that the mystery of what happened to Reeves is still unclear. After all, this isn’t a documentary re-creation. But if you’re going to leave something a mystery, spelling out everything that happens to the lead characters isn’t necessary, especially when it causes the film to last longer than it needs to. Even with that flaw in the film, I still think “Hollywoodland” is worth a look. The blend of elements both in style and story coupled with great performances are going to make “Hollywoodland” an underdog contender for awards season.