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Ben Affleck turns in career-best work in an otherwise so-so 'Hollywoodland'

Hollywoodland is not a great movie. I'll say that right off the bat, but I'll save the bitching for later: I want to start off by praising Ben Affleck, a decent actor who has made a few bad decisions over the years. His work in this film is a nice antidote for Armageddon and Gigli, for both Affleck and the audience.

This is a fictionalization of the circumstances surrounding the death of George Reeves, the man who played Superman in the '50s. One year after the show ended, he was found dead in his bedroom with a gunshot wound to his head. It was ruled a suicide, but some evidence suggested his death could've been the result of foul play. His death remains one of the great Hollywood mysteries.

Affleck plays Reeves, and while the center of the film is actually a fictional private detective name Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), it's Affleck who steals the picture. Yes, he's saddled with a completely unnecessary prosthetic nose, but by the picture's end, it doesn't matter. He's turned in career-best work.

Surely, Affleck can relate to Reeves. After his career skyrocketed, he hooked up with Jennifer Lopez and saw his star fade. Affleck injects Reeves with a certain sweetness, a man who remained good-natured about having to wear padded tights for a living. The role resulted in typecasting, and his future after the show looked like a series of professional wrestling gigs and B-pictures.

As Simo investigates the death of Reeves, the actor's story is told in a series of flashbacks. There are actually three depictions of the night of his death: one depicting it as a suicide, with the other two being murder scenarios. The film, with its wild conspiracies and film noir setting, feels like Oliver Stone meets L.A. Confidential.

Putting the whole L.A. gumshoe detective story aside (a story that is only partially compelling), the most interesting portions of the film involve Affleck's depiction of Reeves' struggles and humiliations. It's heartbreaking to watch a black-and-white film of Reeves trying to show he's physically fit at 45 for a possible wrestling gig. Affleck drops and rolls, and comes up with a smile for the camera, but eventually looks deflated, grabbing his back and giving the camera the "cut" sign. He looks like a guy who wants to die.

In a remarkably well-done scene, Reeves makes a drunken personal appearance as Superman, culminating with a child pointing a realistic gun at him and asking if he can shoot and see if the bullets bounce off. (According to the Internet Movie Database, the real Reeves didn't interact with children, because they often challenged him about his superpowers.) During the filming of a flying scene, stagehands drop Reeves flat on his face. Affleck does a good job with the self-deprecating humor as he stumbles back to his feet, clearly embarrassed.

The hardest scene to take would be Reeves watching a screening of From Here to Eternity, for which he had filmed a bit part. Reeves' eyes light up when he shares the screen with Burt Lancaster, but patrons start screaming Superman catchphrases, and the producers decide to cut his work. Affleck imbibes the scene with a true sense of loss and depression.

Brody does well enough with his scenes, but his role is rather thankless, because it detracts from the film's true line of interest: the decline of a '50s film star. Director Allen Coulter does OK with the visuals. While the L.A. settings are a little pale, that is probably intentional, so as to depict a great Hollywood that is losing its luster.

Most regrettable is the decision to have Affleck wear a prosthetic nose. It looks fine in some scenes, but obviously fake in others. I don't think any of us would've been complaining that Affleck didn't have Reeves' nose, so he shouldn't have gotten the part.

Hollywoodland
Rated NR

More by Bob Grimm

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