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[National Review Online, September 7, 2006]

What really happened the night George Reeves died?

Sounds like a pretty promising idea for a movie. George Reeves was the All-American hunk who played Superman on TV in the 1950’s, and many a Baby Boomer’s ideas of courage, nobility, and strength were shaped by that half-hour afternoon show. So it was devastating news when Reeves was found dead of a shot to the head, on a June night in 1959. His death was ruled a suicide.

Almost immediately, however, rumors started circulating that somebody did him in. And, as in any good mystery, there were a number of reasonable suspects, and interweaving stories of love, betrayal, and hard partying. “Hollywoodland” takes this rich material and spins it into a classic detective tale, beginning on the night of Reeves’ death.

The lead character is private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), who is trying to make it as a solo act (the film enjoys tough-guy dialogue; Simo had lost his agency job because he “shot off his mouth to *Confidential* for 5000 bucks” regarding a starlet’s heroin habit.) Simo learns that Reeves’ mother, Helen Bessolo (a terrific performance by Lois Smith), thinks he must have been murdered. Simo bribes his way into the morgue and pushes a stick of gum into his mouth as he bends over the pale body. He learns that there are two bulletholes in the bedroom floor, besides the one in the ceiling that found its target; it’s not usual for a would-be suicide to plug the floor a couple of times, just to warm up. Also, the bullet casing was found on the bed *under* the body—another neat trick. And why are there bruises and wounds on Reeves’ arms? Simo asks the morgue attendant, “So, he beat himself up before he pulled the trigger?”

Simo’s investigation leads him to the older woman with whom Reeves had a long-time affair, Toni Mannix (an energetic Diane Lane), wife of MGM’s general manager, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Eddie, it seems, likes to settle any little problems that crop up permanently, if you know what I mean. Next Simo meets Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), Reeves’ more recent girlfriend – in fact, briefly his fiancée. When Reeves broke the engagement off, she reacted “like a longshoreman on a bender,” according to a friend. Leonore is from New Jersey, where patter vocabulary is different; she confuses Simo by calling him “a catfish.”  

So there are plenty of potential suspects, and it can’t be discounted that Reeves was himself despondent over his drooping career (he became so indelibly associated with Superman that his appearances in serious films brought laughter). He was in chronic pain following a car accident and taking pain pills, as well as drinking too much. Even if someone else pulled the trigger, he might have felt ready to go.

The usual label for this kind of movie is “stylish noir thriller,” and it’s stylish all right; every detail of décor and dress is perfect, down to Reeves’ pinkie ring and his rare Alvis automobile. From the opening shot, swooping in from far above LA to Reeves’ home like a Google Earth search, the camerawork is thoughtful but not intrusive.

It’s noir, too, though not as relentlessly cynical as the prime examples of the genre; seems like recent movies are reluctant to give audiences unambiguously downer endings, such as in “Chinatown.” And it’s also hard to get the broody-evil thing going on when much of a film takes place in the daytime in sunny Los Angeles.

But thriller? That’s where the film lets us down. The feeling of the movie is melancholy rather than menace. Adrien Brody has a big broken nose and sorrowful eyes, and his Simo has to deal with a girlfriend who is stepping out on him, an estranged wife who is remarried to the guy who plays Goofy at Disneyland, and a 7-year-old son (Zach Mills, a marvelously natural actor) who is devastated by Superman’s death. (“He shot himself in the head with a Luger,” little Evan says. “That’s a Nazi pistol.”) The events of the movie keep flowing by, and Simo responds to them without passion. He doesn’t seem to be particularly invested in the case he’s working on; there’s no emotional hook. Stuff just happens, and he responds less like a dogged investigator than like a catfish. “Hollywoodland” has a good story to tell, but way it’s told won’t send shivers up your spine.

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