All extant Ben Affleck fans can now rejoice — Matt Damon’s other half has finally done some acting at least half-worthy of the Oscar (1998 Best Original Screenplay for “Good Will Hunting”) that has so paradoxically stood on his mantle for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, the devastation born from his omnipresence in the tabloids — a result of high-profile relationships with starlets such as Gwyneth, J. Lo and the recently knocked-up Garner — has been matched only by the pain inflicted by his movies.
Next to anything Mr. Sydney Bristow has done in this century, “Hollywoodland” looks like a god-child from another planet, a career-saving Messiah sent to wrestle the demonic spirits responsible for bad scripts, worse acting and the worst of all curses: peaking too early (see Oscar, above). In fact, one of the best things that can be said about this film is that it knows how to save something for the end. The plot of “Hollywoodland” starts off slow, but once off the ground, it hovers at a safe distance through most of its duration and only begins to soar minutes before the credits roll.
In spite of ending on a high note, the film can hardly be called uplifting. Rather, it interestingly works to cast a series of shadows on our culture’s shining heroes: the invincible Supermen, the untouchable Hollywood icons and the idolized, war-torn fathers of past generations. “Truth, justice and the American way” are under attack in this film, and not in the Fox News sense.
Adrien Brody (good as usual, but less attention-grabbing than the atypically magnificent Affleck) plays private-eye Louis Simo, a washed-up freelancer out to make a buck anywhere he can find it. He nabs fifty a week for checking out the death of actor George Reeves, a man most famous for portraying Superman on a children’s television show. Simo noses around the inaccessible corners of “Hollywoodland” for any crumb of evidence suggesting something other than suicide, but only digs himself deeper and deeper into the muddle of an unsolvable case.
Affleck, his character already capped from the get-go, shows up only in flashbacks as the story surrounding his rise and inevitable fall are slowly uncovered by Brody. Some of the best scenes are those between Affleck and Diane Lane, who plays Reeves’s jealous, married lover, Mrs. Mannix. Lane carries the right amount of aging sex-appeal for the role, while the younger Affleck mirrors, almost wordlessly, her tragic vulnerability. Robin Tunney (“The Craft”) makes a particularly delicious turn as Reeves’s fiery fiancée Leonore Lemmon. Providing the only flicker of much-needed comic relief, Tunney’s character is invaluable to the film.
Set before and during 1959, “Hollywoodland” visually recreates the era of iconic studio-owned celebs like Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra by painting a clear distinction between gods and mortals. Characters with famous names are seen draped in antique jewels, fine linens and an elegant swirl of cigarette smoke, while the anonymous players in an increasingly consumer-based culture get the factory adornment of wool suits, horn-rimmed glasses and Lone Ranger lunch pails. The mingling of these images in curious juxtapositions and repetitions creates arousing effects and helps to sustain viewers who might otherwise feel the weight of their eyelids.
After seeing “Hollywoodland,” there’s little surprise that it was produced by Focus Features, a consistently dependable company responsible for such recent awards-show heavyweights as “Brokeback Mountain,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Minding the occasional bad apple, Focus films consistently proffer talented actors with enriched roles, often yielding character-driven epics with peripheral storytelling.
No exceptions here: Ben Affleck puts on the red cape, and everything else kindly dulls itself in contrast.