Hollywoodland belongs to that strain of solipsistic true-crime sagas that includes Auto Focus and Wonderland in which Hollywood re-envisions tales from its storied past as noir-ish mysteries about the pitfalls of fame and fortune. Reveling in old-school period detail while simultaneously striving to deglamorize its milieu by revealing its seedy underbelly, these films push inward-looking romanticizations of the movie biz as both glitzy and dangerous, also affording the opportunity for knowingly cheesy recreations of classic films and television programs.
In this case, the minor bygone star embroiled in intrigue is George Reeves (Ben Affleck), TV’s original Superman who committed suicide in 1959 but, as rumor has it, might have been murdered. It’s a notion director Allen Coulter’s whodunit exploits until, failing to posit a convincing foul play scenario, it falls back on inconclusive ambiguity and contrived narrative parallels between its dead subject (seen in flashbacks) and the fictional, skuzzy private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) hired by Reeves’s mother to investigate her son’s death. Offering up three different scenarios for Reeves’s demise—one involving his golddigger fiancé (Robin Tunney), one involving MGM bigwig Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), whose wife Toni (Diane Lane) was Reeves’s sugar-mommy, and one involving Reeves alone—Paul Bernbaum’s script slings suspicion at anything that moves.
Unfortunately, without more than the flimsiest of evidence to suggest that something criminal occurred, the overriding result is simply that every character’s motives are disingenuously cast in doubt for dramatically suspenseful purposes. The film is more successful at pinpointing Tinseltown denizens’ struggles to reconcile their aspirations with their realities, a dilemma that plagues not only Reeves (who, after debuting in Gone with the Wind, thought he deserved stardom greater than that afforded by his small-screen superhero gig) and Simo (once a respectable sleuth, now a loner shunned by his former colleagues, wife, and son), but also the random pretty boy matinee idol who’s castigated by Mannix for foolishly getting caught in compromising homosexual photos.
The duality between what one has/wants and what one is/desires to be, however, proves to be a lackluster thematic spine, due in part to the film’s schematic plotting (rife with overly tidy analogies), as well as to its inability—courtesy of pedestrian tough-talk and proficient yet unremarkable performances—to effectively mimic noir’s air of desperate yearning and seductive hopelessness. And thus regardless of the fact that Simo, like Jake Gittes before him, is finally forced to forget it all, Coulter’s Hollywoodland, a polished but puny imitation of yesteryear’s detective yarns, is ultimately no Chinatown.