'Hollywoodland' Doesn't Quite Measure Up

Adrien Brody (right) stars as Louis Simo. Credit: Focus Features.

hide captionAdrien Brody (right) stars as Louis Simo.

Focus Features

Hollywoodland is an ambitious film that succeeds up to a point, but no further. It's a reasonable facsimile of film noir, but it's also an overly derivative piece of work that thinks it is doing and saying more than it is. And this despite a subtle and effective performance by, of all people, Ben Affleck.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

That particularly bleak movie-making style called film noir is in the air these days. Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia opens next week and Hollywoodland hits screens today.

Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan thinks it doesn't quite measure up.

KENNETH TURAN: Hollywoodland is an ambitious film that succeeds up to a point, but no further. It's a reasonable facsimile of the real thing, but it's also an overly derivative piece of work that thinks it is doing and saying more than it is, and this despite a subtle and effective performance by, of all people, Ben Affleck.

In some ways, this film's unfulfilled trajectory matches that of Hollywoodland's protagonist - the real-life actor George Reeves. Reeves wants to have Clark Gable's career, but detoured into the wasteland of 1950s television to star as Superman. When his body is found in June of 1959, the police call it suicide. But several people have their own reasons for not being sure including fictional private eye, Louis Simo, played by Adrien Brody.

(Soundbite of movie, Hollywoodland)

Mr. ADRIEN BRODY (Actor): (As Louis Simo) You're an old man, Eddie. Who's gonna wipe the blood off your hands?

Mr. BOB HOSKINS (Actor): (As Eddie Mannix) My hands? I'm in the picture business.

Mr. BRODY: (As Louis Simo) No, you're a murderer.

TURAN: Simo's investigations and glimpses of his own messy private life alternate with flashbacks of what Reeves - played by Affleck - was up to when he was alive.

Hollywoodland wants to ask all the important questions about the nature of power and celebrity, about the traps and snares of the Hollywood life. It wants to be like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, but its execution falls short.

Hollywoodland is a bear for visual accuracy, putting a lot of effort into getting the look of the 1950s just right. But its very authenticity starts to feel oppressive, as if too much of the project's energy went into sweating those details.

The best thing about Hollywoodland turns out to be Affleck's performance. Perhaps because his own career has had its unexpected downturns, Affleck is particularly effective as a man simultaneously desperate and full of himself.

(Soundbite of film, Hollywoodland)

Mr. BEN AFFLECK (Actor): (As George Reeves) Art got a call. They're picking up Superman.

Unidentified Woman (Actress): They're what?

Mr. AFFLECK: (As George Reeves) Kellogg's bought it.

Unidentified Woman: After two years?

Mr. AFFLECK: (As George Reeves) That's right. I will be on television in a month wearing brown and gray underpants.

TURAN: With its combination of vulnerability and charm, this is perhaps Affleck's most interesting performance and certainly one of his best. But despite its virtues, the film never fully succeeds because of the artificiality that hangs over it.

Hollywoodland offers three possible scenarios to explain Reeves' death, but the question gets less and less interesting as the film goes on. When critic Edmund Wilson famously asked in his attack on detective stories, who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd, he posed a question that would work just as well with George Reeves.

MONTAGNE: The movie is Hollywoodland. Kenneth Turan is movie critic for MORNING EDITION and The Los Angeles Times.

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