True crime? Not in 'Hollywoodland'

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

'Hollywoodland," which stars Adrien Brody and Ben Affleck, takes off from the 1959 newspaper headline that upset an entire generation of kids: "TV Superhero, Out of Work, Kills Self." The superhero was George Reeves, star of "Adventures of Superman," but did he really shoot himself, as officially determined, or was it an accident – or even murder?

There have been almost as many theories about Reeves's death as there have been about another notorious Hollywood case, the Black Dahlia murder. (The Dahlia story has also been turned into a movie, directed by Brian De Palma and opens next week. This must be the season for true crime in LaLa Land.)

For "Hollywoodland," the decision was made to focus on the three likeliest explanations for Reeves's death and then dramatize how each might hypothetically have occurred. For true crime completists, this approach may seem like an embarrassment of riches, but for most of us the results are unsatisfying. Instead of homing in on a particular theory, the filmmakers leave it to us to sort out.

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This might not be so bad if the various scenarios had some believability. But they come across as so pulpy that I didn't trust any of them. I'm not asking the filmmakers to solve the case, but the solutions they put onscreen should at least hold water. "Hollywoodland" has too many leaks.

The movie is also too ambitious for its own good. Brody plays a low-rent private detective, Louis Simo, who convinces Reeves's mother that there has been a coverup about her son's death that only he can expose. As Simo's story is played out in all its sordid detail, the filmmakers intercut flashbacks of Reeves's movie-colony lifestyle. The two men's up-and-down existences are given a parallel, and highly contrived, trajectory.

Brody's performance is an odd one – even by his typically odd standards. He seems to be compacting every lowlifer from every film noir ever made. It's difficult to believe in Simo as anything but a pastiche. This is true of other cast members as well, including Bob Hoskins as Eddie Mannix, the gangsterish MGM "fixer" who, it is suggested, may have had a hand in Reeves's death, and Diane Lane as Mannix's wife, whose torrid affair with Reeves is overwrought and soapy.

Affleck, though too stiff and mannequinlike, captures a bit of Reeves's wily deadpan. (If he had survived, Reeves might have enjoyed a rejuvenated career like Leslie Nielsen's, parodying what he once played straight.) As a boy, I watched "The Adventures of Superman" religiously and always thought Reeves, with his sidelong winks to the camera, was performing just for me.

By all accounts he was quite a cutup. Affleck shows us how Reeves's self-deprecation and practical jokes kept the actor afloat as his dream of becoming the next Clark Gable rapidly faded into the not particularly lucrative, world of TV. (Reeves's first film role was, in fact, in "Gone With the Wind.")

This movie might have been better if it hadn't fashioned itself as a cross between "Citizen Kane" and "Chinatown," and instead had used Reeves's story to dramatize the transitional state of 1950s Hollywood. Reeves didn't know it then – no one really did – but film stars were giving way to television stars in the public imagination. Television, which seemed vaguely disreputable at the time, would soon irreparably alter the calculus of celebrity. The irony of Reeves's career is that he was, in retrospect, a bigger star than many movie actors of his generation.

He even ended up having a movie made about him. Grade: C+

Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content.

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