Monday, October 30, 2006

HOLLYWOODLAND - great performances mask a structural mess

HOLLYWOODLAND purports to be a movie about the truth behind the apparent suicide of George Reeves. Reeves was TV's first Superman. The problem with the movie is not so much that it doesn’t tell you who did it. After all, it’s touted as one of Hollywood’s great unsolved mysteries. The problem is that actually, bluntly, I just didn’t give a shit. And the reason why I didn’t give a shit had nothing to do with the acting – which varied from fine to brilliant. It was to do with the way in which the writer and director had chosen to frame his story.

Ben Affleck has won awards for his performance as George Reeves, both as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. I think that this confusion as to whether or not his character is at the centre of the film is indicative of the fact that the writer and director really haven't made up their minds as to what the focus of the movie is. Is it on the charismatic and tragic George Reeves? It’s certainly a compelling story. We meet him as a slightly out-of-shape actor – a real gent – but down on his luck. He aspires to take on serious parts in quality films but he can’t get a break. He ends up starring in a cheap kids serial just to earn some cash. But, almost to his embarrassment, the serial turns out to be a huge success – to a nation of kids, he is Superman. Reeves drinks heavily and rues his cheap fame. Typecast, he can’t break into serious films. He’s also railing against the possessive hold of his sugar-mama – the wife (Diane Lane) of the VP of MGM (Bob Hoskins) – and takes up with a young brazen actress from New York – “to make him feel young”. It’s a tragic story of a man who, despite success, is not satisfied that he has lived up to his potential – and Ben Affleck portrays his inner turmoil well. It’s his best performance in years – not because Affleck went through a phase of being a lesser actor, but because he chose terrible parts.

Thing is, as fascinating as this story is, we never get a handle on it because it’s essentially a partial story told in flashbacks – little vignettes uncovered by a private detective investigating George Reeves’ alleged suicide. Half of me wishes the director had just used a conventional biopic format and let Reeves’ story have some time to breathe, but the problem is that the over-laid detective story is in some ways the movie's greatest asset. This is because as much as it destracts from George Reeves it contains the stunning performance of Adrien Brody as the private detective, Louis Simo. Simo is hired by Reeves’ mother to investigate the alleged murder. Brody’s performance is pure charisma – he plays Simo as a guy with intelligence, charm and an eye to the main chance. But he’s more than just a natty line in sports-coat and smart line for the press: he’s a good man. Although he starts off on the make – drumming up a little press to keep the mother’s cheques coming, he is genuinely aghast when he realises there might be some truth to her claims. He genuinely wants to protect his girlfriend from the mess and seems to have a real need to get some closure on the case. You sense that the director wants to make a big deal about Louis’ relationship with his young son as well. I can see why the director wants to do this – it helps flesh out Louis’ character as well as show the modern audience just how popular Reeves was with the kids and just how much his death affected them. This plot strand is interesting and well acted – but once again, it just distracts from the main story and further confuses the issue of just who’s story this is.

One final point brings me back to the issue of the unsolved crime. Like I said, this didn’t bother me too much, but it certainly makes HOLLYWOODLAND a different kettle of fish to, say, CHINATOWN and LA CONFIDENTIAL, both of which have Byzantine plots that do eventually resolve themselves. By contrast, in HOLLYWOODLAND, the alleged murder is more of a MacGuffin to allow the director to explore two interesting characters and the impact of Hollywood’s latent corruption and greed on their lives. Of course, CHINATOWN and LA CONFIDENTIAL are also brilliant examinations of the cruelty and decadence at the heart of LA and they do this stuff far better than HOLLYWOODLAND, which deals with corruption on a domestic rather than systemic level.

I am pleased to have watched Hollywoodland and can recommend it purely on the grounds of production design, Adrien Brody’s outstanding performance and some decent play from Diane Lane and Ben Affleck. But Brody aside, I can’t quite understand the Oscar buzz. This week alone I have seen more impressive performances in movies like SHORTBUS, INFAMOUS and BUENOS AIRES 1977. Moreover, performances aside, in terms of narrative structure I think this movie is a real mess.

HOLLYWOODLAND played Venice 2006 where Ben Affleck won Best Actor. It opened in the US in September and in Italy in October. HOLLYWOODLAND opens in the UK on December 1st and in the Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Belgium and France in February 2007. It opens in Australia and Germany on March 15th.

No comments:

Post a Comment