Murder-mystery explores Hollywood’s seamier side
So much of Hollywoodland is half-baked—and so much of its publicity campaign is conspicuously absurd—that it’s surprising to find that some parts of the thing are really very good.
The advertising makes much of the film’s being about the supposedly mysterious death in 1959 of George Reeves, the huskily handsome actor who gained his greatest fame playing Superman on television in the early 1950s. The death was officially ruled a suicide at the time, and Allen Coulter’s film is in part a kind of speculative and retrospective portrait of Reeves, his career and his romances, in the margins of Hollywood hoopla. But an even bigger part of the film focuses on the travails of one Louis Simo, a rather sleazy private detective who sees an opportunity for career advancement of his own in the exploitation of suspicions that Reeves’ death was actually a murder.
The Simo part of the story adds a certain local color to the film’s neatly evocative depiction of the seamier side of Hollywood in the 1950s, but Simo’s personal dramas never really develop any conviction or credibility. Paul Bernbaum’s screenplay saddles the character rather arbitrarily with issues of father figures and hero worship, and Adrien Brody, an Oscar-winning actor stuck in an incoherently written role, is left floundering for whatever crumbs of dignity he can find.
But if the Simo plot seems to strangle on morbidly juvenile hysteria over a trumped-up murder mystery, the fragmentary biographical glimmers of Reeves (Ben Affleck) with his lovers, an older woman (Diane Lane) and a younger one (Robin Tunney), generate a rich sense of maturity and charm. Coulter’s direction and Bernbaum’s writing seem to rise to a whole other level in the Reeves-Lane scenes, and it helps a good deal that Lane and Affleck deliver such fine performances.
Lane’s incarnation of Toni Mannix, the sexually adventurous wife of studio executive Eddie Mannix (briskly played by Bob Hoskins in the film), articulates the mixture of boldness and regret in the film’s vision of fading glamour and ambition on the edges of the Hollywood dream factory. And Affleck’s spot-on impersonation of Reeves has a blend of vanity and hearty vigor that makes for a sharper and truer character commentary than anything Bernbaum’s dialogue can concoct.