Saturday, August 21, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Hollywoodland"

Film critics love when directors take a stab at film noir riffs, because it gives us a chance to trot out all of our best verbiage and showiest references. For example, I can tell you that Hollywoodland, the new film from Allen Coulter, is more of a sun-drenched noir in the vein of Chinatown that the darker noir of its most recent cousin, L.A. Confidential. I even took a note of that, right there in the theatre. Impressed? No, of course not.

The primary concern is not what Hollywoodland quotes, what it stylistically resembles, that it utilizes a Citizen Kane-style structure, or if director of photography Jonathan Freeman’s slightly desaturatd color scheme works (Sorry, I took the notes, I should put ‘em to use). The question, then, is this: Does Coulter’s film tell a compelling story? The answer: Mostly.

If you take a look at the trailers for Hollywoodland, you’ll notice something strange—they seem to be downplaying the participation of Ben Affleck, once Hollywood’s golden boy. Maybe, after a string of high-profile duds (I maintain that Gigli is a better film than it’s rep, and whatever problems Jersey Girl had, they certainly weren’t his fault), Hollywoodland’s marketing team determined that Affleck’s presence was a detriment to the film, so they played up the investigation story, fronted by inexplicably better-respected actor Adrien Brody (sorry, never been a fan).

In truth, the film is basically a double-narrative; the life and death of George Reeves (Affleck), TV’s Superman, gets about the same amount of screen time as the investigation of his death by busted-out private eye Louis Simo (Brody). The problem, however, with the double narrative is that Reeves’ story is more interesting than Simo’s, and Affleck’s performance is more engaging.

Some have said that it’s mere typecasting, Affleck excelling in the role of a big likable lunk with limited acting skill and a falling star. This poor guy can’t get a break. His work as Reeves is a skilled performance, intuitive and sharp and varied, and he more than holds his own against the marvelous Diane Lane. Their break-up scene is masterful; Affleck knows when to raise his voice, and when to quietly, simply deliver the meanest line in the scene: “She makes me feel young.” That’s controlled dialogue delivery, and it is matched by two wonderful wordless moments—one, a playful home movie that quickly turns tragic, and two, a lingering close-up of the broken man in his darkest moment.

Director Coulter, a TV veteran (primarily of The Sopranos and Sex and the City) shows a genuine skill with actors; in addition to Affleck’s work, he manages to sit on Brody and pull out a less mannered performance than usual. Bob Hoskins is predictably fabulous in a menacing turn, the always-valuable Robin Tunney is effective, and there are scores of fine character actors like Jeffrey DeMunn and Joe Spano working overtime in support. It’s a richly well-acted film.

Marcelo Zarvos’ evocative score pulls things together nicely, and Paul Bernbaum’s script is smart and serviceable, if not inspired. For most of its running time, the film is interesting, well-made, and superbly acted. But the more time it spends with the private dick (and, even worse, the more time it spends on his family problems), the more our attention and focus wavers. What Hollywoodland gets right, it gets very right. It’s just a shame they didn’t trust the story they wanted to tell, and had to surround it with so much window dressing.

-Originally written 10/06
"Hollywoodland" is available on DVD and via Netflix Instant Viewing.

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