Sunday, April 4, 2010

Mystery of George Reeves' death explored

Hollywoodland (2006)
Starring: Adrian Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, and Bob Hoskins
Director: Allen Coulter
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Small-time, sleazy private detective Louis Simo (Brody) gets himself hired by the mother of actor George Reeves (Affleck) to investigate her son's death. In the process, he not only discovers much about Reeves but also learns some things about himself.

"Hollywoodland" sounds like a detective movie, but it isn't. It is actually an examination of its two lead characters--the detective, Simo, and the dead actor, Reeves--who are men with similar strengths and character flaws, despite their vastly different lines of work. Both men want fame and fortune, but neither wants to work terribly hard at it and instead try to get by on their charm and wit.

Mixing fact and fiction--most of the featured characters are based on real-life people--the film tells of the last few years of Reeves' life as Simo investigates the circumstances of his death. In the process, we get to know Reeves, Simo, and the people in their lives. It's actually amazing how the actors, writers, and director managed to make us feel like we know the characters in the film--there is great depth to all but one of the characters (the slutty, younger New Yorker that Reeves trades his sugar-mamma, Toni Mannix, for), and every actor is in top form here.

Particularly great in the film are Lane and Hoskins, who play the Mannixes, a powerful Hollywood couple with a strange relationship. Their final scene together in the film is outstanding.

Also worthy of praise is Affleck... and that's a sentence I thought I would never write. His portrayal of a man with lots of charm but limited work ethic and empathy for others, and who is done in by his own flaws, is well done. He likewise gives us a spectacular final appearance in the film. (There is a scene that plays several times in the fim, a little different each time, as Simo imagines how it might have unfolded as he attempts to reconstruct the final hours of George Reeve's life, and the last time it plays is downright heartbreaking... and that emotion is due to Affleck's performance.)

I'm heaping endless praise on this film, so why am I giving it only a rating of 7? Well, two reasons.

First, the film has a POV problem, as far as the narration goes. How do Simo and the viewers learn what we do about Reeves? Simo doesn't seem to make contact with enough people to gain the sort of in depth knowledge that we are presented with. The answer is that the film is being told from the vantage point of an omniscient narrator, and the last few minutes do seem to give us a definite truth about what happened to Reeves--and if you see a review that says otherwise, know it was written by someone who wasn't paying close attention to the movie--but Simo's role in the story feels too much like he's a proxy for the audience, which means the film's narrative POV isn't omniscient. At least not consistently. This technical problem keeps me from giving the film a high rating.

Second, the film drags a bit. I understand why we need to see Simo's failed marriage and his relationship with his son, and I understand why we need to be introduced to the secretary he's having an affair with, and I also see why we need to get to know some of the agents from the detective firm he once worked with--it is part of the illustration of how Simo and Reeves are alike--but those elements feel like disruptive side-trips from the film's main narrative on a couple of occasions. I found myself getting restless, because as the film should feel like it was building toward its end, it still seemed to be meandering a bit, as Simo started to see what attentive viewers recognized at roughly the halfway mark... that he was on a life-path running parallel to that of the dead actor.

Despite its faults, this is one of the films of the past decade that should have gotten far more attention than it did. If you haven't seen it, you should.

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