Hollywoodland insists we remember the original wording on that big sign we all know, thirteen poison letters that, as Kennth Anger mythologizes in Hollywood Babylon, had to be shortened because frail things like Peg Entwistle had jinxed the sign by using it to commit suicide. (On a side note, Entwistle died shortly after making a film entitled Thirteen Women.)
This lingering aura of violent loss surrounds Hollywoodland, as it seeks answers to fatal questions about faded fame and un-kept promises. George Reeves, who played Superman on TV in the 1950s, dies from a gunshot wound, and an obscuring mist quickly settles in, despite the best efforts of Adrian Brody's sad private eye, Louis Simo, who is suffering his own losses as a divorced father. The film shifts between Simo's efforts to discover whether Reeves had been murdered and Reeves' own life as an aspiring actor and unhappily famous TV star. While the Reeves scenes have more punch to them, Simo's slow walk down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams serves as a telling counterpoint. We are not surprised that his investigation, like Reeves' life, seems to go nowhere.
One of the lasting pleasures of Hollywoodland is the cast. As always, Brody is a perfect nervous schlub, a guy who splutters and stumbles, pitching forward into the plot like a silent film comedian; imagine Buster Keaton in a film noir. As studio head Eddie Mannix, Bob Hoskins' American accent once more satisfies, and Diane Lane as Toni Mannix--cheating on Eddie with Reeves--is given the fullest opportunity yet to channel her inner Gloria Grahame. And the film's first-time director, Allen Coulter, had previously helmed a dozen Sopranos episodes, so he was ready for a tale of duplicity and brutal anxiety.
But special notice must be made of Ben Affleck's George Reeves. I'm not sure why we're supposed to laugh at Affleck--all right, some will sneer, "Gigli," but a deeper resentment seems at work here. The "Bennifer" crap is a manufactured response to an imagined affront--or maybe a real one: Sometimes I suspect that one night Affleck simply flipped off the wrong paparazzo. The good news is that, after three years of this nonsense, he gathers all the sheepish grins and burning resentments, puzzled grins and you-got-me shrugs, and carefully portions them out in his portrayal of George Reeves, sliced up and served as a turkey sandwich at Musso and Frank's, just another story to tell while waiting for the bill. I don't know if Hollywoodland is the best movie about that town, but it may be the saddest.