Saturday, October 02, 2010
Some thoughts and drinks and smokes: Hollywoodland
A surprisingly good and sometimes even wonderful film, Hollywoodland tells the story of a down on his luck private eye (as all private eyes must be, or so the movies tell us) who gets assigned to investigate the enigmatic surroundings of the alleged suicide of actor George Reeves, most famous for playing the role of Superman on TV.
The detective is played by Adrien Brody in a classically laconic way, although sidestepping some of the more pronounced clichés of such characters. The detective, Louis Simo, is divorced from his wife but is still a part of her life and that of their young son. We get hints that Simo is a recovering alcoholic. For the first hour or so of the film he drinks Coca Cola like it's going out of style, a peculiar fashion for a young man in the 50's. Simo also chews a lot of bubble gum, a habit he's trying to replace with that of smoking cigarettes. When he does go back to smoking and drinking he goes all out, eventually making a fool of himself in front of his son who is so scared of his father in this scene he runs away in fright. Anyone who has experienced alcoholism in real life will be struck by not only the verisimilitude but also the quiet restraint of this scene (one has seen countless similar scenes in hundreds of films and almost all of them devolve into ridiculous sentimentalism).
The reason why these aspects are especially worth enumerating is that the film is more of a mood piece and a character study than an exercise in plot. The most impressive part of the film is Ben Affleck's performance as the ambitious and pained Reeves. He expertly conveys both the man's sense of fun (he could apparently drink almost anyone under the table, a feat worthy of the real Superman in 1950's Hollywood) and his self-doubt and guilt. Both are primarily the result of his affair with the wife of one of the major studio heads in Hollywood. She is instrumental in getting him the part of Superman and sets him up in the Hollywood hills with a nice bungalow and a steady supply of booze. But when Reeves' ambitions extend beyond "colored underpants" and especially when he falls for a fiery (and boozy) girl of his own age the relationship turns sour. Afflleck is able to touch on a multitude of complex notes in a layered and nuanced performance, without a doubt the best work of his career.
The role of Toni Mannix, the wife of producer Eddie Mannix, is played by Diane Lane in another wonderful performance. The exquisite Mrs. Lane imbues Mannix with both wit and pettiness, her fear of turning old and her awareness of her fading good looks turning her love for Reeves into selfish lust. The most surprising performance in the film belongs to Bob Hoskins as Eddie Mannix. Mannix, at first, seems like a stereotypical hoodlum from countless films from the film noir genre but he turns out to be one of the film's more complex and interesting characters, equally frightening and sensitive. Hoskins, in a scene where he tells his distraught wife that he will always love and protect her, knowing full well about her affair with Reeves and her possible involvement in his suicide (or murder) is nothing short of astonishing.
The pacing of the film tends to lag and the dialogue is not nearly as crafted as similar exercises in neo-noir, be it Towne's screenplay for Chinatown or Helgeland's for L.A. Confidential. The film is also a bit frustrating in its refusal to give us a more straightforward account of the details surrounding Reeves' death. The ambiguity is, of course, a large part of the point here but one sometimes feels as if director Allen Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum are not showing as much of their hand as they should, leaving out key plot elements or pieces of information that are only hinted at or briefly mentioned. An early example of this is a brief exchange between Simo and the police officers on the case where Simo all of a sudden accuses them of covering up important information such as the fact that the gun Reeves supposedly used to kill himself did not have any fingerprints on it or the fact that there were several bullet holes in the room where the body was found. We never find out exactly where Simo got this information, how the cops tried to cover it up and how they fit into the possible solution of the mystery surrounding Reeves' death. It is somewhat to the film's detriment that Coulter did not emphasize the procedural aspect of the genre a bit more.
As a character study, though, the film is in many ways excellent, focusing on people whose ambitions, addictions and fears threaten to destroy and overshadow what is good and decent in them. Hollywood and its dream machine are, of course, the perfect symbol for these spiritual themes. The period detail is meticulous and similarly free of clichés as the script. It's a breath of fresh air to see a detective in a period film who is not dressed like a Bogart character (Mr. Brody's wardrobe could, in fact, be worn proudly by any modern day hipster). Mr. Coulter, a veteran of television, making his feature film debut, sometimes lacks the visual pizazz that would have elevated the film to such heights as Polanski's Chinatown - there are the occasional moments when the film looks like a Law & Order episode that takes place in the 50's - but his sensitivity towards the characters and masterful direction of acting make up for this a great deal. Perhaps the highest praise I can afford this film, and I do consider this high praise indeed, is that since seeing it a few days ago I have enjoyed a great deal mulling over scenes and bits of dialogue. There is something very universal and sad in these characters but there are also glimpses of hope and redemption, of our ability to learn from mistakes, if not our own than someone else's. I definitely look forward to revisiting Hollywoodland soon.