The first time we see Ben Affleck in the lush '50s noir Hollywoodland, he's bruised and bloated with a bullet hole in his head, lying on a slab of concrete in an L.A. morgue. At this point in his career, it's probably how most moviegoers would like to see him. For a while, it seemed the young actor who first endeared himself to America by writing and starring in the scruffy boys-from-Boston feel-good flick Good Will Hunting could do no wrong. Then, he effectively killed off his career with a little film named Gigli, a charmless vanity project starring Affleck and then-squeeze Jennifer Lopez, a celebrity couple so insufferable and overexposed that they had to be referred to with a singular moniker, "Bennifer."
Since then, Affleck has moved on to another superstar Jennifer (Garner) and scaled back his public profile, but his roles haven't gotten any better, including an utterly dreadful, stab-in-the-dark attempt at comic-book heroism (Daredevil), some frantic John Woo action (Paycheck) and a limp black comedy (Surviving Christmas). Affleck was clearly in need of a resurrection: Not a big-buck spectacle but a low-key supporting role that made good use of his good looks and corny, earnest demeanor.
He's found that in Hollywoodland. Playing George Reeves, TV's original Superman, Affleck gets to show off his chops by trying on the accent and gait of a real-life figure, all the while tweaking his own image as a conflicted, confused star. The movie reopens the true-life mystery surrounding Reeves' apparent suicide in 1959, and though it's not as searing, lurid and incendiary as the similar L.A. Confidential or the more surreal Tinseltown fable Mulholland Drive it's a compelling, well-acted character study that marks a promising feature debut for longtime Sopranos director Allen Coulter.
Mixing fact and fiction, the movie focuses on a small-time private eye, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), who's snooping into Reeves' death. Receiving a tip from a fellow sleuth, Louis immediately zooms in on Reeves' mother, Helen (Lois Smith), pressuring her to visit the bedroom where her son died. He throws bones to the press about the multiple bullet holes at the crime scene and taunts MGM security or anyone else who might be trying to cover up evidence.
Meanwhile, Reeves' rise to TV stardom is recounted via a series of intricate (and sometimes jarring) flashbacks. This is a noir with not one but two femme fatales: Toni (Diane Lane), the boozy, insecure wife of brutish movie-mogul Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), and gold-digging New Yorker Eleanor (Robin Tunney). The former basically treats Reeves as a kept man, buying him a house and serving as his benefactor while his career takes off; the latter enters the scene after the cancellation of Superman, serving as both an invigorating sex kitten and emasculating enabler to his alcohol-soaked lifestyle.
The mystery in Hollywoodland, however, often takes a backseat to engrossing personal details, including Louis' strained relationship with his girlfriend (Caroline Dhavernas), ex-wife (Molly Parker) and Superman-loving son (Zach Mills). A number of enticing minor characters pop up (would-be starlets, screenwriters) adding fuel to the intrigue, but ultimately serving as examples of how the movie industry turns everyone into duplicitous climbers who usually have something to hide. As portrayed by Affleck, Reeves is a slightly better-than-average actor whose tragic flaw is that he wanted more: stardom and respect along the lines of Clark Gable or Burt Lancaster. (Allegedly test audiences laughed when the Man of Steel showed up as a serious character in the drama From Here to Eternity with Lancaster.)
Affleck's solid performance may come as a surprise, but better yet is Brody, recalling Al Pacino at his slithery, desperate best. Coulter and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum may fail to make their themes of sex, money and opportunism resonate in the way that, say, Roman Polanski did in his masterpiece Chinatown, but they do load up the movie with the glamorous trappings of Los Angeles in the '50s cigarette girls, cocktails and taffeta dresses without ever letting their nostalgia get in the way of the city's seamier side. If the film's ending is more of a shrug than a jaw-dropper, it's somehow appropriate: Like the actor it eulogizes and, by extension, Affleck Hollywoodland stops short of greatness even as it hits all the right marks.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.