Ben Affleck takes a significant stride toward correcting his frat-boy-actor image in an engrossing portrayal of George Reeves, the actor popular for playing the Man of Steel on television’s Adventures of Superman series in the 1950s. Reeves’ alleged suicide after the show’s cancellation in 1959, instigates LA private detective Louis Simo’s homicide investigation at the behest of Reeves’ bereaved mother Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith).
Adrien Brody delivers a winning performance as the embattled private investigator in director Allen Coulter’s (director on The Sopranos) stunning feature film debut. Production designer Leslie McDonald (Intolerable Cruelty) brings the film’s California noir period atmosphere to brilliant life with an assured eye for detail that immerses the viewer in Hollywood’s most fetishized decade.
The film’s anachronistic title references the original 50-foot tall Hollywood Hills sign that was erected on the side of Mount Lee by a real estate company in 1923 before the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce abbreviated it by its last four letters in 1949 during much-needed repairs. The word gently signals a defining moment in Hollywood history where sordid reality undermined the polished illusion of celebrity culture.
Hollywoodland thrives on opposing polarities. Debut screenwriter Paul Bernbaum puts together a multi-dimensional narrative puzzle where L.A. detective Louis Simo sets out to solve a mystery that connects to his personal life as the recently divorced father of young boy whose childhood values have been shattered by the self-destruction of his television hero.
In a morning diner scene that could have been cut from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive Simo presses his former LAPD partner to give him a hot tip. The hard-nosed detective tells Simo about Reeves’ mother’s suspicions about her son’s death being a homicide after the police department have all but signed off on the case as an open and shut suicide.
Between uncomfortable visits with his distraught son, nagging ex-wife (Molly Parker) and her annoying boyfriend, Simo attempts to reconstruct Reeves’ demise at the age of 45 that occurred during a house party with Reeves’ brash new fiancee Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) present in the next room with several guests. Simo’s longingly imagined scenarios for Reeves’ possible means of death are fleshed out in narrative cul de sacs of murderous speculation that backfire on the private dick from every direction.
On the other side of Bernbaum’s narrative split is Reeves’ back-story as an actor-on-the-make whose claim to fame was a bit part in Gone With The Wind. Ben Affleck uses approaching middle age to his advantage in radiant flashback scenes with Diane Lane as Toni Mannix a former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl now in an open marriage with MGM studio general manager and mob ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix (played with steam heat by Bob Hoskins).
The genius of the movie is the way in which it explores possible explanations for Reeve’s death before providing the audience with a bit of Reeves’ silent home footage that Louis Simo carefully watches for telling subtext. As Reeves performs physical acts in his front yard for what he intends to be a wrestling demo film, Affleck exposes the character’s inner workings. He exhibits essential aspects of Reeves that respond humbly to every question raised in the film. The depth of Affleck’s tempered emotional enthusiasm tells you everything you need to know. MTW