‘Hollywoodland’: Who Shot Superman? By Kurt Loder

Ben Affleck returns, and Diane Lane shines, in a real-life Tinseltown murder mystery.

In “Hollywoodland,” a would-be Tinseltown noir, Ben Affleck puts the ruinous “Gigli” period behind him (and puts on a little weight) to play George Reeves, the actor who became a national idol as the star of the “Adventures of Superman” TV series, which ran from 1952 to 1958. Reeves’ death on June 16, 1959 — when he was shot in the head in his bedroom while a small party was under way in his house in Los Angeles — was immediately ruled a suicide by the police. But several nagging facts about the case — no fingerprints were found on the gun that killed Reeves; his hands were never tested for gunpowder residue; and the party guests waited 45 minutes before calling the cops — remain unexplained to this day.

The movie doesn’t explain them, either. Instead, in a relentless series of flashbacks, it offers possible alternatives to the official suicide verdict. Maybe Reeves was accidentally shot during an argument with his fiancée, a coarse brunette named Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney). Or maybe he was offed by the minions of a powerful studio executive, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), with whose wife, Toni (Diane Lane), he had been having an affair. (Mannix and Toni were open with each other about their extramarital liaisons; but Mannix, a man with alleged mob connections, was protective of his wife, and might have been angered when Reeves broke her heart by dumping her for a younger woman.)

The movie gets a lot of things right about the period: the swank, smoky Hollywood nightclubs; the women’s mink stoles and veiled hats. And the soundtrack is lightly laced with ’50s hits by Paul Anka, Buster Brown and Bo Diddley. But the picture has serious problems, and in the end it sinks beneath the weight of its awkward narrative concept.

The standard story on Reeves is that he was so vividly identified with his Superman role that he had trouble getting other work. He had a small part in the Oscar-winning 1953 movie “From Here to Eternity,” but at a pre-release screening of the film that’s depicted in “Hollywoodland,” we see his first appearance on the screen greeted with hoots of familiarity from the audience, and studio reps deciding on the spot to cut him out of the picture. In reality, though, Reeves wasn’t cut from “Eternity,” and the movie’s late director, Fred Zinnemann, was later quoted as saying that no pre-release screening had even been held. In addition, at the time of his death, Reeves was already embarked on the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” in which he played a key character, Detective Arbogast. (In the wake of the shooting, the part had to be taken over by another actor, Martin Balsam). This fact would seem to argue against Reeves being depressed about the state of his career — certainly not enough to kill himself. But the possible murder scenarios offered by “Hollywoodland” aren’t completely convincing, either — although the ambiguities in the case do leave considerable room for speculation.

More problematic for the picture, however, are the narrative devices that first-time director Allen Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum have employed to tell their story. After Reeves’ death, his mother, Helen (Lois Smith), refusing to believe her son could have taken his own life, comes to L.A. and hires a private investigator, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), to track down the truth. (In real life, Helen hired a famous Hollywood P.I. named Jerry Geisler to do the job.) So the movie veers between Simo’s investigation and a blizzard of flashbacks detailing the years leading up to Reeves’ death. This see-sawing between the here-and-now (or the there-and-then) and the earlier events is confusing at first and, after a while, annoying.

Playing an older woman whose beauty is fading, and who is desperate to hold onto the much-younger Reeves, the inveterately excellent Diane Lane, now 41, is spellbinding — she puts her own great beauty on the line (especially in a startling scene with Hoskins toward the end) with total commitment to the part. Affleck is good, too, and it’s good to have him back from tabloid purgatory. Unfortunately, it appears that so little is known about Reeves the man that there are only a few scenes in which Affleck is able to utilize his charm as an actor, and in the end the character remains something of a cipher.

Much more problematic, though, is Brody’s Louis Simo. There’s far too much of him in the picture — he’s virtually the star — and we quickly grow weary of his never-ending (and completely irrelevant) tribulations with his ex-wife and young son. Brody is a whispery presence throughout, and compared to such other fictional L.A. detectives as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, his Simo is a pale and listless specimen of the hard-boiled trade. If anyone might usefully have been cut out of this picture (or at least cut way back), he would be the prime candidate. Had this been done, “Hollywoodland” might have been a lot more super than it actually is.

— Kurt Loder

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