Hollywoodland is hardly the first film to feature a brace of matinee idols who smirk with all the confidence of the well-paid (consult most buddy movies starting with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for past prototypes. Or ask grandpa about Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in Test Pilot). The difference in today’s film is that Ben Affleck and Adrien Brody smirk not at each other but in separate storylines that never actually intersect, and they smirk with notably different results.
Playing George Reeves in his TV-“Superman” period, Affleck captures just the right note of bemused irony as the second-rate beefy actor who reluctantly dons the superhero muscle suit. As the boy-toy kept by an MGM executive’s wife, he’s only seeking to make a buck for a measure of independence, but soon finds himself mobbed by adoring moppets and mired in ridiculous type-casting. (The real Reeves had a decent shot at stardom as Claudette Colbert’s love interest in So Proudly We Hail, Paramount’s wartime paean to nurses at Bataan, but why this high-profile role failed to propel him upward makes an interesting question unexamined in this movie).
Maybe his membership in this adulterous triangle, completed by Diane Lane as the straying wife and Bob Hoskins as her ruthless but surprisingly devoted spouse, closed more doors than it opened. This relationship gives Hollywoodland an intriguing dynamic, with shrewd depictions of how business was done in 1950s Hollywood. Reeves assured himself an enduring tabloid immortality by contriving to get shot, and therein lies the tedious frame story and the picture’s problem.
To stir the dirt in the grave, the script reaches deep into the private eye wastebasket to fashion a wholly sleazy rogue detective, identified as a strike-breaking goon at Warner Brothers and an informant for the scurrilous red-baiting and fag-exposing Confidential magazine. In this ill-conceived and thankless role, Adrien Brody tells off sympathetic characters, squeezes dollars out of Reeves’ mother, and smirks as if to signal his superiority. Every time the film reverts to him, it leaks credibility like a hose, although the regulation beat-up-the-detective scene proves especially satisfying here.
Proposing three different scenarios to account for Reeves’ demise, the movie doesn’t argue strongly enough for any of them, rendering itself ultimately pointless despite last ditch grasping for a “Rosebud” moment that will sum up the actor’s life. Its frank look at the underbelly of the dream factory and some sharp performances almost put it across, but audiences seem unlikely to exit smiling.