Tuesday, 26 September 2006

Hollywoodland (2006)

And then, they started laughing when the movie started...

Don’t point your fingers at Bollywood and the film industry in 1980s Hong Kong for being infested with mobsters. Watch Get Shorty, The Black Dahlia and Where the Truth Lies, and you’ll see that Hollywood used to be just as criminal – and perhaps even more so during its golden age, where studios controlled every aspect of an actor’s life, and studio bosses had teams of publicists who do their work with heavy chains and a genial punch to the stomach to any nosey investigator or reporter digging for negative stories that may tank next week’s movie release.

Hollywood in that milieu would be akin to an entirely corrupt universe. As some directors (Atom Egoyan, Brian De Palma) have realised, all you’d need is a mysterious death, a femme fatale, and a detective to set a noir film in Hollywood. Here, the death is that of George Reeves (Ben Affleck), the man who played Superman on television in the 1950s. A small-time actor whose debut bit part in Gone With The Wind was his biggest film role, Reeves’s dying career was only revived through a fortunate stint as the hero in the morning kids’ serial The Adventures of Superman. The boost in popularity and instant recognition could only mean one thing for Reeves: the end of his film career, as everyone would laugh and shout "Superman!" whenever the actor appeared in some other film.

Did the actor, after losing his job, his looks, and much of his wealth, blow his head off in his bedroom one night just after entertaining his guests? Was it a suicide borne out of despair, or simply the awful company that evening? Or was it murder?

Here, the cynical, amoral, lowlife noir private eye is one Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), who is not beneath stringing along his paranoid clients to make an easy and regular income. You’d suspect that someone like Louis would be dangerously incompetent, but he does turn up uncomfortable and intriguing leads in the investigation, which suggest that almost anyone could have done it and wanted to do it – Lenore (Robin Tunney), the rejected fiancé who was still smarting that Reeves called off the wedding with less than a week away; Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a Hollywood tai-tai who was keeping Reeves as her toy boy; and Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), her estranged husband who approved of her affair, but might have reconsidered when Reeves dumped her for Lenore. And that’s just the list of initial suspects. A more realistic watcher might argue that might be a sign of his utter incompetence, but this does fit in with the bleak noir feel.

Developing in parallel to the story of Louis’s investigations and his struggle with the studio’s publicists is the story of the last 8 years of Reeves’s life, from the moment he meets and falls for the electrifying Toni Mannix to his eventual death. On the plus side, we are treated to the best performance of Ben Affleck in a long time. Yes, him of the pearly smile and huge stature, but Affleck does channel the good looks and easy charm of George Reeves, as well as his understated wit. Affleck not only does that, but also gives a subtle, just-barely-there sense of humiliation as the popular but typecast actor reaching out for more, all the while realising deep down that this might be as good as he can get.

Even with less screen time, Affleck easily outshines Adrien Brody, whose characterisation is cardboard thin and uninteresting. The detective comes with the standard accessories of an ex-wife and an estranged son who provide nothing to the main story. When written as a standard noir detective, this method of filling up and creating human interest to the character is a sign of poor writing, and is not helped by the dazed and detached performance of Brody in the film. Thankfully, Hollywoodland is propped up by the superior performances of Brody’s co-star and the supporting cast, especially Diane Lane, and should be a serious award contender.

I was impressed by the recreation of 1950s Hollywood as well as the noir atmosphere that surrounded every scene in the movie. Hollywoodland surprisingly offers no new insights and clues to the death of George Reeves, which is the only quibble I have with this film.

First published at incinemas on 11 January 2007

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