"I thought it would never end." That was the only note I could read in my scribbles after screening "Hollywoodland." Unfair, of course, since I knew perfectly well that the film's running time was two hours and six minutes, and I had nowhere else to go till dinner. Not only that, the frequently maligned Ben Affleck does a fine and nuanced job as the ambitious, frustrated real-life would-be star George Reeves, whose career in Hollywood began with a small role in "Gone With the Wind" and ended fifteen years later with a self-loathing performance as television's portly "Superman." Even better, "Hollywoodland" gives us another magnificent piece of work by Bob Hoskins, playing the MGM producer Eddie Mannix as a thug in thousand-dollar suits.
Nevertheless, this wannabe-real film begins with an artificial creation: the conceit that Reeves's suicide in 1959, following the cancellation of his show, was more likely a murder; and in trying to ratchet up our interest in the choices of a possible killer and motive, it loses its way in a morass of suspicions and conflicts. Not least among them is the (fictional) character Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a private detective hired by Reeves's mother to find out the truth about his death. But for some reason screenwriter Paul Bernbaum and director Allen Coulter, both moving from television to film for the first time, have cluttered up poor Louis's life with so much angst - a failed marriage, an angry son, and a drinking problem, to say nothing of beatings from Mannix's goons - that we keep losing sight of Reeves in the flashbacks.
And it is the story of Reeves that is, or could be, truly interesting. A womanizer and shameless self-promoter, he finds Mannix's wife Toni (Diane Lane) one night at Ciro's, and quickly she adopts him as her pet. Older than Reeves and neurotically aware of it, she gives him increasingly expensive presents and even a house of his own. Mannix, who has tentacles everywhere, knows all about it, and even has his own mistress, a Japanese woman. In one of the film's few delicious moments, the four of them are dining out together (the Mannixes are quite open about such things) and George tries to make conversation with the mistress. "Don't talk to her," says Mannix, and when Affleck shows his surprise Mannix says, "She doesn't speak English."
Lane does her best with a one-note role, and as good as she is she cannot overcome the simplistic character she's been given. She even allows herself, at her real-life age of 40, to age well beyond that for the role, as she loses her boy George to a younger woman (Robin Tunney as a would-be actress and part-time whore).
Director Coulter, who's won Directors Guild awards for his numerous "Sopranos" episodes, is good at capturing the time and place, but he can't find a way into the textures of life in the fast lane. I don't think it's his fault as much as it is that of the conflicted screenplay, which when confronted with a minor scandal insists on making it into a Superman epic. Even Lex Luthor couldn't do that.