Hollywoodland

Opens at Seven Gables and others, Fri., Sept. 8. Rated R. 126 minutes.

If Superman Returns attempted to resurrect the Man of Steel as mythic hero, the season's other Superman movie wants to disabuse us of any such childish delusions. Glamorously adult, Hollywoodland purports to part the veil on the circumstances by which George Reeves, the actor who embodied the superhero on '50s television, wound up with a bullet in his brain.

Hollywoodland aspires to a certain authenticity. Suavely self-satisfied Ben Affleck is typecast as the unfortunate Reeves. Serious intentions are signaled by a somewhat choppy Citizen Kane structure. Scenes from the actor's life alternate with the investigation into his death conducted by private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). Simo is an enigmatic bottom-feeder; Reeves is a desperate bon vivant who picks up an ex-showgirl (Diane Lane). Or is it vice versa? "I have another seven good years, then my ass drops like a duffle bag," Toni cheerfully informs him. Kittenish and maternal, she's married to tough MGM executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), with whom she enjoys an open marriage.

Now a kept man and a struggling actor, Reeves takes the Superman gig in desperation. Director Allen Coulter provides an amusingly hyper-real reconstruction of this primitive kiddie show. Its ridiculous success ends Reeves' serious career—he's cut out of From Here to Eternity when the preview audience starts to snicker. Reeves dumps Toni for an ambitious little trollop (Robin Tunney). During the course of a drunken party before their wedding, he goes upstairs and—commits suicide?

That's what the LAPD called it, but starting with Reeves' mother (played by Lois Smith as the most cantankerous harridan in all Indiana), others suspected foul play. Who arranged the hit? Was it jealous Toni? A vindictive Mannix? Reeves' fiancée? And what's angst-ridden Simo's interest? Somehow, he gloms onto the case in an effort to establish his own super bona fides.

Like its protagonist, Hollywoodland has an easy, sleazy appeal—a languid descent into the mystery's murky depths. Behind the fat, florid dialogue camouflaging the unconvincing Rashomon riffs on Reeves' demise, the movie is steeped in Hollywood lore. It inflates a scandal that rates barely a page in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon into a meditation on the price of fame, the nature of acting, and the basis of fantasy. Props also to Affleck. Coulter contrived a neat behavioral trick by inducing his star to play a comparably big-jawed bad actor. Surrounded as he is by canny professionals—Lane, Hoskins, Smith—it's an unexpectedly touching performance, especially compared to Brody's turgid grappling with his underwritten part. But it's an unequal situation: Brody has to act to make it in Hollywoodland, Affleck simply is. J. HOBERMAN

 
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