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Trivial Pursuit: Allen Coulter’s “Hollywoodland”

Trivial Pursuit: Allen Coulter's "Hollywoodland"

A concept in search of an intriguing tale to tell, “Hollywoodland” dredges up the true-life Hollywood scandal surrounding the death of TV’s Superman, George Reeves in 1959. It’s that old murky-glossy peek into the sordid flipside of fame, here coupled with wan commentary on American masculinity, the fallibility of icons, and the absence of father figures — a lot for one noir to carry without buckling under the weightiness. In creating a dual-pronged plot that moves forward on parallel tracks, Emmy-winning “Sopranos” alum Allen Coulter shortchanges both Ben Affleck‘s blustery Reeves and Adrien Brody‘s Louis Simo, the dubious private detective hired by Reeves’s mother (Lois Smith) to investigate his death, a bullet to the head that’s been filed away as a suicide. It’s high concept but low energy, a notorious tragedy awkwardly forced into a half-hearted whodunit wedged haphazardly into yet another story of fathers and sons.

Naturally, women play little to no part in this story — I suppose the expected noir trappings conveniently excuse them from having to be more than trollops or harridans. It’s both surprising and not, coming from Coulter, whose “Sopranos” background set a precedent for subordinating women within male-centered narratives in a manner that at least allowed their suppressed position to become a point unto itself. No such luck with this mixed bag of screechers: Vaguely femme fatale-ish, Diane Lane plays Reeves’s sugar mama, Toni Mannix, the disgruntled aging wife of MGM bigwig Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins, at least having fun), with an off-putting layer of period camp. Taking Reeves under her wing, while also bedding him for an extended affair, Toni comes across less as a woman in control than as a sex-starved sad sack, and Lane, drowning in glam garb, seems lost, if game.

Yet when paired with Affleck’s ham-on-Wonder-bread lug, who wouldn’t be? Even cast as a mediocre actor who longed for credibility but obviously benefited from square-jawed handsomeness, a robust physique, and the kindness of others, Affleck barely registers onscreen. There’s a certain literate, no-nonsense sheen to Paul Bernbaum‘s script and dialogue, yet Affleck’s mealy-mouthed delivery makes everything into an ironic aside. Reeves’s inner torment, already ambiguously detailed enough to make suicide seem a plausible climax, is played mostly as a pissy frat hangover. Contrasted with the musty biopic flashbacks, Adrien Brody’s glorified framing device comes across as forced naturalism. Doing his best Michael Madsen impression, Brody plays Simo as a near burn-out and lapsed divorced dad, a tough guy who makes no excuses but can’t escape his own family guilt. If the two contrasted men — this rejected son of Hollywood and the selfish single father living on the dream factory’s outskirts — had been allowed to play out naturally, then “Hollywoodland” might have been more about recognizable people than vague ideas. Yet when Simo finds his young son burning his Superman outfit in the backyard, the whole thing begins to feel shoehorned-in, a “Quiz Show“-type look back at the Fifties, which speciously claims another locus for America’s Death of Innocence.

Adrien Brody in a scene from Allen Coulter’s “Hollywoodland.” Image courtesy of Focus Features.

Where would Coulter’s cardboard tale fall into Thom Andersen‘s poetic essay/clipfest “Los Angeles Plays Itself“? I’m guessing it wouldn’t have even made the cut: there’s something prefabricated about it; even as a fantasy of Hollywood, there’s no palpable authenticity, just a lot of playing dress-up. There’s technically nothing wrong with “Hollywoodland,” and often it’s quite pretty to look at (there’s a nice touch at the beginning matching a bullet hole in a bedroom wall with a tiny spot of sun shooting blinding rays directly into the camera), but by the time it reaches its hilariously overwrought climax (placing Brody, “Dead Zone” style, into his own Rashomon-esque supposition of what could have happened in this “unsolved” mystery), it’s obvious that there’s not much meat on its bones. With its little bit of Hollywood trivia and glossy tricks, “Hollywoodland” ultimately feels about as satisfying as a round of “Scene It.”

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well the editorial manager at the Criterion Collection and a contributor to Film Comment.]

Take 2
By Eric Kohn

“Hollywoodland” is a title that could benefit from dropping its last syllable. The film’s director, Allen Coulter, says that the term “suggests a state of mind,” but even as the story embellishes on the mystery surrounding the suicide in 1959 of actor George Reeves, star of the popular 1950s “Superman” television program, it is hardly steeped in enough Americana to justify the director’s grandiose pontifications. It ends up as a decent Hollywood noir, but its dour tone fails to reach that proverbial Tinseltown sparkle. For a period piece, it’s strangely subdued.

The irony in casting Ben “Daredevil” Affleck as Reeves, who bemoaned his low culture status as a serial superhero until his untimely demise, fades fast. The actor’s large frame and photogenic grin suit his contented facade, suggesting a deep sadness beneath his party boy energy. Pulling from facts and toying around, “Hollywoodland” churns up “Barton Fink” dejection, so that each twist in the case conveys Reeves’ dwindling hope of becoming a respected thespian. This is particularly noteworthy in a scene where his minor role in “From Here to Eternity” garners audience jeers at the recognizable television persona who just doesn’t seem fit for broader fame. The scene may be imagined, but it could be exactly how the despondent Reeves felt he was perceived– Coulter’s aforementioned state of mind.

Still, the atmosphere lacks an infusion of pop culture, which could have complemented Reeves’ self-deprecating viewpoint as a victim of unmerciful American mythologizing. To wit: His death plays out three times, as Simo explores various possibilities, each round marked by the presence of the theme from “The Girl Can’t Help It” playing in the background. That’s a random choice, considering that Reeves’ life could be more aptly summed up by another comedy with a title song from the same decade: “Hollywood or Bust.”

[Eric Kohn can be read at the NY Press.]

Adrien Brody in a scene from Allen Coulter’s “Hollywoodland.” Image courtesy of Focus Features.

Take 3
By James Crawford

Taking for granted that “Hollywoodland” is awful — and no doubt my colleagues have enumerated how it finds new and wondrous ways to suck with every passing minute — the film becomes fairly, if perversely, enjoyable. Take, for example, the Ben Affleck playing George Reeves. It’s a brilliant decision, mainly because for once a middling, inexplicably popular actor has been hired to imitate another, but also because it’s resulted in the most bizarre, ridiculous performance yet committed to screen this year. Crooning in Spanish (not once, but three times), he emits sounds as high-pitched and plaintive as yelping puppies; spews out a profane, booze-fuelled tirade prior to a live-action performance for the kiddies while bearing the same self-satisfied smirk that’s marred everything since “Good Will Hunting;” and runs through a nominal list of leading man dispositions while bearing the exact same facial expressions. Affleck labors to keep up with thoroughbred performances by Diane Lane and Robin Tunney, is overwhelmed by his material, and remains evidently unaware that charisma, like grace or sensitivity, cannot be taught. But what’s Gordian knot difficult to comprehend (yet grotesquely fascinating to watch after the fashion of a train wreck) is how Affleck can bumble along and remain blithely ignorant of his own inherent ridiculousness — and that he, not his character, is the object of ridicule. At the same time, completely at odds with these mechanisms, “Hollywoodland” trots along as a lap dog in his wake, breathlessly striving to turn Affleck into a matinee idol.

The futility of said enterprise is beautifully encapsulated when Allen Coulter superimposes Affleck onto a brief scene Reeves played opposite Burt Lancaster “From Here to Eternity.” Lancaster appears surreally two-dimensional and disembodied from the background, moving awkwardly much in the way that Nancy Marchand did when producers digitally cobbled together a posthumous performance for her in “The Sopranos”– yet even so, Lancaster is more magnetic for the split-second he appears. It’s no small feat to be upstaged by a dead guy.

[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shotand has also written for the Village Voice.]

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