'Hollywoodland': Why Go There?

Why real-life whodunits end up Hollywood bland.

By Steve Burgess 8 Sep 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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It's Chinatown. Not.

I can't tell you much about Hollywood, but Hollywoodland is a lot like Saskatchewan -- long and flat. While it's on, the directorial debut of Alan Coulter will never make you scowl or sneer or snort in derision. But when it's over -- probably half an hour before that, in fact -- you'll be wondering why you and he and everybody else bothered.

Hollywoodland tells the tale of the 1950s-era TV Superman George Reeves, who was found dead in his bedroom in June 1959. It's a real-life whodunit where the primary "who" was always Reeves himself, quickly ruled to have put a bullet through his own out-of-work brain.

It's the film's conceit that third-rate private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) becomes convinced otherwise. He takes the case before becoming convinced, mind you. Simo sells Reeves' grieving mother on his ability to stir up some press coverage on the story. But naturally, Simo soon decides he was right all along and pursues the possible suspects. Meanwhile he must deal with his own disillusioned son, distraught that Superman shot himself -- and with a German pistol no less.

Film packs

Hollywood land -- as opposed to Hollywoodland -- is a place where creatures roam in packs. This is the first of two real-life Hollywood mystery fables coming to the screen this fall, the second being Brian De Palma's Black Dahlia. Judging from Hollywoodland, these films may be a delayed reaction to the Oscar-winning success of L.A. Confidential. Hollywoodland evokes that period picture strongly enough to invite unfair comparisons -- comparisons that may then lead on to Roman Polanski's Chinatown, and that is simply not a fair fight. Adrien Brody, you are no Jack Nicholson.

He's not even Mickey Rourke, an actor I found myself mentally casting halfway through Hollywoodland. (With a title like that, it's only fitting one would try to play producer.) In his prime, Rourke might have offered the suggestion of sleaze, menace and cunning that Brody just doesn't offer.

Reeves himself is played by Ben Affleck. Getting Affleck to play a second-rate actor is genius. I predict that someday Affleck will be cast as a severely concussed high school quarterback and win an Oscar. "I look like a damn fool," Reeves/Affleck says the first time he puts on the Superman costume. I wonder if he said that in the Daredevil suit too?

Wandering the 'land

Hollywoodland has some well-observed moments and a nice sense of place. But Lord, how it meanders. Leads are offered up and then ignored; the investigation lurches ahead, then spins its wheels; a major suspect is discussed when we haven't even been properly introduced to her yet. It feels leaden and clumsy, and all the while the stakes stay resolutely low. The movie is about George Reeves, and he was a real person. So there's only so much you can do. Freed from the burden of a real-life victim, movies like L.A. Confidential or Chinatown can gradually amp up the stakes so that the initial crimes lead on to dark mysteries and grand conspiracies, thereby justifying everyone's time and money, onscreen and off. Hollywoodland doesn't escalate -- it just loops around, fussing with the same knot. After the third recreation of Reeves playing his guitar on the night of the murder you'll assume he was shot just to keep him from warbling that Mexican ballad again.

Bob Hoskins and Molly Parker feature in supporting roles, and, like most of the cast, they do a fine job. As Reeves' rejected mistress, Toni Mannix, Diane Lane is great as usual. But even before the frustrating ending -- an ending that can be guessed if you consider that this is a fictional story about an actual case -- you'll be asking: why?

At Thursday's promotional screening at the Park Theatre in Vancouver, Alliance Atlantis representative Owen Cameron made a prize draw. His mother won. I exited the theatre more intrigued by that mystery than by anything in Hollywoodland.


Sunday, September 24, the Park Theatre in Vancouver will host a showing of the movie Mrs. Henderson Presents, starring Dame Judy Dench. Tickets $10 at the Park or online at www.festivalcinemas.ca. All proceeds go to the Performance Artists Lodge (www.palvancouver.org), a worthy project that has already been struck by a fire and a flood. Lend a hand before the locusts attack.

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee every other week, alternating with Dorothy Woodend, and writes about other matters for The Tyee as well. To read his previous pieces go here.  [Tyee]

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