Set in 1950s Tinseltown, ``Hollywoodland" has scraps of old movie glamour. It also has shades of later movies that sullied all that class and refinement with a lurid touch, namely Roman Polanski's ``Chinatown." But that's all ``Hollywoodland" is: scraps and shade.
Written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter , ``Hollywoodland" turns the 1959 death of George Reeves (Ben Affleck ) -- television's first Superman -- into a pulpy murder mystery: Did he off himself or was he actually killed?
Another tale of a gruesomely dead lesser actor (Bob Fosse's ``Star 80" and Paul Schrader's ``Auto Focus" precede Coulter's), the movie's flashbacks to Reeve's life are inconclusive. And since the film can't say what happened one way or the other (ruled a suicide, the official case remains unsolved), ``Hollywoodland" often feels uncertain. Half of the film is more persuasive than the other, and the connective threads are thin.
In the hope of fleshing it out, the film concocts Louis Simo (Adrien Brody ), the type of private eye who goes spying on the wives of cuckolded husbands. He's a bottom - feeder, taking cases the Los Angeles Police Department can't be bothered to investigate further. Simo gets a tip from a detective friend that the Reeves shooting might not be a suicide. Reeves's mother (Lois Smith ) certainly doesn't think it was. She hires Simo to look into it. The film cuts between his investigation and scenes of the actor in the years before his death.
Here, George is a strapping fellow of modest talents and moderate success, frequently cast in small parts. His aspirations of being a leading man fail to materialize, although he has been able to live off the fumes of his brief appearance in ``Gone With the Wind." Nonetheless, George is a fun-loving and sensitive lug. And at a party one evening, his charm wins him a break. In the film's best sequence, he has a nice, flirty conversation with luminous Toni Mannix (Diane Lane ), whose husband, Eddie (Bob Hoskins ), is a publicity bigwig at MGM.
That doesn't prohibit Toni and this handsome younger man from beginning a mutually advantageous affair. He beds her and makes her laugh. She buys him a bungalow and introduces him to the right people, one of whom tips him off to an audition for a new show called ``Adventures of Superman." This isn't what George has in mind for himself , but he takes the part anyway -- it's lucrative. ``Superman" makes him a star, but the show blinds the public and Hollywood from seeing him as anyone else. His limited career opportunities coupled with Toni's increasing possessiveness make him feel captive.
There are degrees of torture, grief, and self-pity in Affleck's performance. But the real surprise is his comfort with looking like a star. He is classic-Hollywood handsome (for once that jaw line has a purpose), and there is real crackle between him and Lane. She looks seductive, and he seems seduced. But the movie is up to too much -- and yet not nearly enough -- to give either star room to breathe.
Indeed, that part of this story is so well told, and Affleck so good in the telling, that it's hard to understand, aside from the most pretentious artistic aims, why the filmmakers bothered with the detective story. The flashbacks only amplify the discordant tone. Characteristically tough and feeble-seeming (he always looks like something the Rat Pack dragged in), Brody acquits himself.
But Simo is justifiable only as an excuse to root through the dirt of this sordid story. Saddling the character with a melodrama involving his ex-wife (Molly Parker ) and increasingly estranged little boy is transparent. The happy news is that his search does turn up a delightfully nasty Robin Tunney as the suspect woman to whom George was engaged as he tried to extricate himself from Toni.
Yet the movie doesn't build to anything dramatic or enlightening. You can tell that Bernbaum and Coulter, the director of several fine ``Sopranos" episodes in his feature debut , want to achieve cultural resonance. It's there in their depiction of Reeves's career trap: What is the elusive ``It" that makes an actor a movie star? And it surfaces when the film mentions how freaked out American children are by the irony that Superman is dead.
Sadly, those are small parts of the film. ``Hollywoodland" really wants to conjure the decadence of those other two iconic Los Angeles period movies, ``Chinatown" and ``L.A. Confidential." But it's incapable of dredging up the psychological horrors in Polanski's film or capturing the fraught social history in Curtis Hanson's.
Only Affleck comes close to embodying a complete sense of despair, and there's not enough of him. Why? That's the movie's biggest unsolved crime.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.