If you’ve heard of Superman, you’ve probably heard of George Reeves. He played the character in the 50s television series Adventures of Superman, but died at the age of 45. The official cause of death was suicide, but there was always the prevailing thought that it might have been murder — accidental or otherwise. Hollywoodland is based around Reeves’ life, both leading up to the shooting, and after, as it’s investigated by a private investigatory named Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), who is in the middle of battling his own demons.
Simo gets the majority of the screen time, although we get many flashbacks — some of which happened in real life, a few that have been created for the film, and some that are speculative; they might or might not have happened — of George Reeves, here portrayed by Ben Affleck wearing a fake nose, and looking quite similar to Superman. Reeves wasn’t a terribly complicated man, as far as the film is concerned, but he did have two women in his life whom he loved dearly. The first, a married woman named Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), whose husband was the general manager of MGM (Bob Hoskins), and a fan who eventually becomes his fiancée, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney).
We learn all of this through Simo’s eyes, as he discovers more about Reeves’ life. He tries to put all of the pieces together by uncovering clues, interviewing the people with whom Reeves associated, and logically trying to piece it all together in his mind. As he does so, he winds up learning much more about his own life than the one he’s supposed to be figuring out. Hollywoodland reveals itself not to be a study of or an attempt to solve Reeves’ murder/suicide, but a character study of the detective taking the case.
There are many parallels in the two stories that we watch throughout the course of the film. Both Reeves and Simo wanted everyone else to see them as larger than life and both had more than a couple of family issues. The only question is whether or not Simo will learn from his case and change things around in his own life, or if he’ll, possibly, wind up the same as Reeves.
This all takes place in a very impressive recreation of 1950s Hollywood. In the Reeves timeline, which begins in 1951 and progresses until 1959, when he died, everything is stylized, but still appears authentic. The allure of the stars is there, and it all feels so attractive. As time moves forward, it becomes more “real.” Grittier, less charming, and so on, right up until Simo becomes a chronological part to the story. It’s a smart trick used by director Allen Coulter, and one that adds to the overall effect.
What was a bit of a relief to see is that Hollywoodland isn’t interested in attempting to solve or even insinuate what its thoughts are about the situations directly leading up to Reeves’ unfortunate death. It presents three plausible ways in which he died, and allows the viewer to make up his or her own mind. The film is a character study of Simo, anyway, so this makes sense, but it’s not a preachy film even in its smaller parts. After all, nobody is certain what exactly happened to Reeves, so the film trying to make a statement about it would be foolish.
It also makes for one heck of an enjoyable mystery film. It’s slow-paced, but always engaging. Simo — who is a fictionalized character based on several real people — is dropped into this world of people who existed in real life, and gets to interact with them, get to know them. It’s fascinating, especially whenever the flashbacks seem to lead straight into a situation he’s facing in his present life.
There are two leads in the film, one for each of the two stories. Adrien Brody gets the most time on-screen, and also has the more challenging role. He’s a broken man investigating the case of a man whose life parallels his own, to varying degrees. He has to portray the turmoil of discovering this, and also undergo a fairly large psychological shift by the time the film comes to a close. Mix in hitting rock bottom, and you’ve got yourself a challenging role. He pulls it off effortlessly.
Affleck fares better than he usually does in portraying Reeves. The film doesn’t present him as all that complex, but Affleck at least looks and sounds the part, which is about all that matters. He gets to play off his co-stars more often than not, anyway, and with a beautiful woman in the form of Diane Lane or Robin Turney at his side, it’s sometimes not really necessary for him to be great. His best aspect is that he’s charming and charismatic, and he milks that for as long as he can in this role.
Hollywoodland is a film of questionable enjoyment, but rarely one where the quality is the suspect. It’s a solid mystery that quickly turns its B-story of a troubled investigator into the main one, opening up as a character — not case — study. It ultimately works, in large part because of the parallels between the two plots, the way the world slowly looses its style as the timeline progresses, and because of how good Brody is in the role. And you won’t see a finer representation of 1950s Hollywood anywhere, especially with only $14 million to work with. I quite enjoyed Hollywoodland, and definitely give it a recommendation.