In the noirishly tantalizing showbiz tragedy “Hollywoodland,” director Allen Coulter and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum remind us that the late actor George Reeves was no match for a speeding bullet.
Depressed by his sinking career prospects after achieving international fame on TV’s “The Adventures of Superman,” Reeves shot himself in his Beverly Hills cottage in the summer of 1959, bringing a grimly ironic end to his life and career. At least, that’s one story.
Nominated for a director’s prize at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, “Hollywoodland” also explores, “Rashamon”-style, the possibility that Reeves was the victim of foul play. It makes for an engrossing if fatally indecisive bit of true crime lore, one that musses our collar but fails to deliver the promised punch.
As played by Ben Affleck — in his most ambitious, layered performance to date — Reeves was hardly the bespectacled stiff that his Clark Kent persona suggested.
With a penchant for Spanish guitar and breakfast shots of whiskey, he comes off as a cross between a bohemian and a jaded salary man, which — in the waning days of the studio era — might not have been so far off.
Coulter catches up with Reeves when the actor is already well into his 30s, crashing a black-tie dinner in Hollywood, trying to get his name — fading from public memory after a high-profile screen debut in “Gone With the Wind” — back into the gossip pages.
At the party, he meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane from “Unfaithful”), the neglected wife of powerful MGM boss Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). With her husband’s blessing, the two have an affair, followed by Reeves’ fateful casting in “The Adventures of Superman,” much artistic self-loathing, another affair with a grasping New York socialite (Robin Tunney) and, finally, his death.
Reeves’ story is experienced in flashback by Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a private eye with lax scruples who digs up a pair of homicide scenarios on behalf of the actor’s frail, disbelieving mother. Brody (“King Kong”) brings a lean, exciting vigor to the role, but the character’s personal issues — an ex-wife, a distant son, corruption, the usual gumshoe stuff — mate uncomfortably with the mystery at hand.
Screenwriter Bernbaum refuses to make hard and fast judgments about Reeves’ death, but that’s forgivable — the problem is that various conspiracies aren’t framed for the audience in a way that makes it easy or interesting for them to make such a judgment themselves, and the story wanders to an unsatisfying finale.
Moreover, this probably isn’t the project to restore Affleck’s lost credibility. At times, the “Armageddon” and “Gigli” star seems fully in command of Reeves’ conflicting motivations. At other times, he seems every bit the B-actor he’s trying to imitate. The results, in every sense, are inconclusive.
>> Rated R (profanity, some violence and sexual content), 126 minutes. Grade: B-