[Screen It]

(2006) (Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck) (R)

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Drama: A private eye investigates the death of the TV actor who played Superman, trying to figure out whether it was a suicide or murder.
It's June 1959 and the actor who played Superman on TV -- George Reeves (BEN AFFLECK) -- has been found dead in his Hollywood Hills home from a gunshot wound to the head. His fiancée, Leonore Lemmon (ROBIN TUNNEY), claims he was depressed about being typecast in the role, and the cops seem to believe that suicidal account.

Yet, his mother -- Helen Bessolo (LOIS SMITH) -- doesn't think her son would do such a thing, and her statements draw the attention of private eye Louis Simo (ADRIEN BRODY) who's recently been hired by Chester Sinclair (LARRY CEDAR) to catch his adulterous wife in the act.

But Louis -- who's divorced from his wife Laurie (MOLLY PARKER) and doesn't see as much of his young son Evan (ZACH MILLS) as he'd like -- is far more interested in this high-profile case. His investigation soon leads to the discovery that George was having an affair with Toni Mannix (DIANE LANE), the wife of MGM studio executive Eddie Mannix (BOB HOSKINS).

As we see both George and Louis' stories simultaneously unfold, the detective encounters all sorts of unexpected interference as he tries to figure out whether the actor was murdered or took his own life as everyone else believes.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Much has been made over the years about the supposed "Superman Curse" (a cousin, I guess, to the one related to King Tut) where many associated with the comic book, radio show, TV series or movies have had something bad happen to them. If you believe in such things, it was the cause of the superhero's creators never getting to realize a financial windfall from their work.

Then there was Christopher Reeve's horseback riding accident and subsequent death years later (along with that of his wife soon thereafter). A host of other events ranging from the box office "disappointment" of the latest film (at a "measly" $195 million and counting domestically), to other illnesses, subsequent career flops (Dean Cain, anyone?) and even more deaths.

Probably the most intriguing yet now long forgotten one concerned that of George Reeves, an actor most famous for playing the man of steel in the TV series "The Adventures of Superman." While it brought him fame (at least among the millions of children who tuned in every week) and some degree of fortune, it also forever typecast him -- like Kirk Alyn a decade earlier -- in the role.

Then on June 16, 1959, Reeves was found dead in his Hollywood Hills home, not far from the landmark Hollywood sign that another decade earlier also contained the word "land" appended to its ending. Despite a planned wedding to a New York socialite, Reeves' death by gunshot was ruled a suicide. Yet, speculation has persisted ever since that it might have been murder, perhaps somehow connected to the actor's love affair with Toni Mannix, then wife of a powerful studio mogul.

Those rumors are addressed in the period drama "Hollywoodland," a fictitious look at a private eye's investigation of the life and death of the actor. Marking the big screen debut of Allen Coulter (who cut his directorial teeth working on programming for HBO such as "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City," and works here from a script by Paul Bernbaum), the film is a generally well made, if not always terribly engaging offering.

With its period setting and various sordid tales of sex, murder and Hollywood connections, the film will obviously remind some viewers of the far superior "L.A. Confidential" and hits the big screen just one week before another period Hollywood murder mystery, "Black Dahlia."

Comparisons aside, the film is constructed as part gumshoe flick -- where Adrien Brody's private eye tries to get to the bottom of the truth -- and part biopic with Ben Affleck (yes, you read that right) playing the doomed actor. With Brody's part taking place just days following the discovery of Reeves' body -- reportedly with one bullet wound to the head but no prints on the nearby gun -- the film switches back and forth between his story (also involving his estranged wife and boy) and following Reeves' ascension from bit character actor (he appeared in "Gone With the Wind") to TV star.

Along the way, we see his initial contact and subsequent affair with Mannix -- the lovely Diane Lane once again returning to the adulterous wife role (this time cheating on her studio mogul husband played by Bob Hoskins) -- and later meeting with NY socialite Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) who then becomes his latest lover and bride-to-be.

Thus, as Brody's character digs deeper into the recent past, a number of suspects line up. Could it be the fiancée who's not so sure about the pending marriage, or perhaps it's the jilted lover getting revenge? Then again, the culprit could be her husband (or his minions who've made it clear they don't like him nosing around -- much like J.J. Gittes in "Chinatown") or maybe it's just the toll that permanent typecasting took on the actor (we see him being cut out of "From Here to Eternity" when test audiences react to seeing "Superman" in the film).

The answer is never perfectly clear, but the biggest clue may be in some silent home movie footage showing the actor practicing his moves for another movie audition. In that scene, Affleck conveys a believable emotion of tired dejection, and this may be his best work yet, credibly playing an actor of that period (in terms of how he speaks, carries himself and more).

Brody's good as always, but his character isn't entirely sympathetic, so it's somewhat hard getting behind his quest for success. Lane is terrific, Hoskins is appropriately menacing, and supporting performances from a number of other performers are solid all around, which also holds true for the production design.

The problem -- at least for yours truly -- is that it never popped, crackled, or sizzled like I thought it would. All of the necessary ingredients are present for a top-notch, period drama, but despite the intrigue, mystery, sordid details and developments, solid performances and good technical credits, the offering never fully engaged me.

Of course, that could have just been me at that particular moment in time and space, and I imagine the film could earn a number of award nominations, particularly in the supporting performance categories. Solidly told but just not quite as brilliant as I was hoping for, "Hollywoodland" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 7, 2006 / Posted September 8, 2006

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