On June 16, 1959, George Reeves, best known for playing TV's Superman, died in his bedroom of a gunshot to the head. The authorities ruled it a suicide, but Hollywoodland wonders: Could it have been murder, and if so, who would want to kill the genial and fading actor?
This film, based on real events, suggests suspects ... a former lover, a new young lover, the studio, Reeves' depression, or perhaps just the whole empty, façade-filled culture of Southern California. Certainly, the film's title is a wink at the presumption that movie folk of yore lived in their own self-reflecting bubble, where reality, fantasy and the desires of powerful studios converged, and not always successfully.
Reeves' death spurs maverick private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) to action; Simo, separated from his family and short of cash, sees making a stink about Reeves' demise as his lucky break. Naturally, Simo and the others in Hollywoodland are all grasping for the next bigger role.
As Simo pokes and prods in the summer of '59, the film flashes back to the early '50s, sketching in Reeves' personal and professional life. He makes the lucky acquaintance of Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the dallying wife of MGM executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Reeves becomes her pet, and in time, America's new televised hero, the Man of Steel. Reeves, who was a handsome man if not a particularly great actor, is portrayed by a slightly soggy Ben Affleck, a role that suits his own slim talents.
Director Allen Coulter ... who previously helmed such sprawling, moody TV series as Six Feet Under and The Sopranos ... makes a confident big-screen debut, deftly balancing the story's two threads. Borrowing from L.A. Confidential and even Chinatown, Coulter gives Hollywoodland the downbeat, melancholy vibe we've come to expect in similar nostalgic Tinseltown crime pieces.
What Hollywoodland lacks is the deep pervasive cynicism and coldness-beneath-the-golden-sun that characterize our favorite films about L.A. (regardless of whether such a critique is valid). Our lovers ... Reeves and Mrs. Mannix ... are sentimentalists at heart; Simo fancies himself hard-boiled, but it's a cover for his busted-up life. And Brody, with his limpid eyes and insouciant grace, can't fail to lend Simo the sympathetic charms of a boastful youth playing out of his league.
Coulter's film, adapted from a script by Paul Bernbaum, includes plenty of fun tidbits for Tinseltown history buffs well versed in Hollywood Babylon. Yet as fun as it is peeking behind the scenes, Hollywoodland, itself a minor-key melodrama-thriller of sad souls dressed in pretty satins, manly tweeds and merry laughs, trots out the proverbial admonition about looking under rocks: As tempting as they are to turn over, they inevitably hide nastier stuff underneath.