What is it with Hollywood? You don't get a film noir thriller set in 50's tinsel town for months and months, and then all-of-a-sudden two show up at once (I'll be reviewing The Black Dahlia on my UK DVD Review Blog later this week).
Hollywoodland had its theatrical release just a few short months ago, when it was flagged by many critics as a potential oscar winner, if not for the film but for the career-turnaround performance of Ben Affleck in the leading role of TV's Superman, George Reeves. It's a sad coda to those reviews, and an indictment of the whole farcical Oscar nomination process, that a performance like Affleck's has been completely ignored while a 'no acting required' performance from Mark Wahlberg in The Departed does earn a nomination. I can't work out whether it's a case of being in with the in-crowd, or just the dollars made at the box office by the film you appear in, which determines an oscar nomination these days, but whatever the reasons behind Wahlberg's nomination and Affleck's non-nomination, they are manifestly unfair.
Hollywoodland tells two parallel stories of men who can't accept what life's given them, even when it's been rather kind. The film opens with the discover of Reeves' 'suicide' and then switches alternately between flashbacks of the actor's life as he struggles to get a leading man role, and the (fictional) life of 'private detective' (more a wannabe than a real detective) Louis Simo. Simo is a man with a good wife and family that have left him through his refusal to grow up, and he latches onto the Reeves suicide as his big chance to make a name for himself. In the process he appears to stumble on evidence that suggests a lot of skeletons in Reeves' closet with the implication that this may not have been suicide after all but murder.
Were Affleck not in the picture, Brody would undoubtedly be receiving all the plaudits for his role as the immature detective who is forced to grow up during the running time of the film. He is never less than convincing in a role that requires his character to 'act' the part of detective, complete with cliché gum chewing, obligatory 50's stylised accent, and the proverbial attitude to boot.
But this is Affleck's moment in the spotlight, giving a beautifully subtle and nuanced career-best performance as a man who desperately believes he can be a Hollywood leading man, only to be given a starring role in a children's TV series that he feels is beneath him and typecasts him to the point that he can never appear in movies again.
There's a wonderful scene where an early screen test of From Here To Eternity causes giggles from the audience members who recognise him as 'Superman', resulting in most of his scene being cut. As the camera moves in on his reaction to the laughter around him there's real pain and humiliation conveyed in his face, such that as an audience we know that this is the end of his Hollywood career. Not many actors could have pulled off such a scene, and there are many others here that show Affleck has made good use of his time away from the gossip columns. It's a brave move, particularly with the actor having to put on significant weight for the role and perform scenes that are flattering for someone whose reputation until now has been built around that of a matinee idol.
Unfortunately the film itself falls down on two fronts. Firstly a thriller with no resolution is no kind of thriller at all, and so the ending which gives us three possible explanations for how/why Reeves ends up dead can never be anything less than something of an anti-climax. Worse than that, the parallel story telling device becomes irritating in the extreme. The real life Reeves story is by far the more interesting one, and the constant, much too frequent switches between the two stories is not just confusing, but repeatedly throws away the tension and interest that's been built up in the main plot. The whole thing feels much too slow as a result and it's not hard to see why the box office was so disappointing, given the lack of pacing and bite.
The transfer is excellent, but the affected bleached out faded Kodachrome effect used here, and in far too many recent Hollywood films, is one I find irritating beyond belief. We live life in colour, not as some sort of throw-back to the way films were made back in the 50's. Brady's story in particular is shown almost completely as a sepia-retouched black and white movie, the desaturation process has been so intense. Follow this 'design' to its logical conclusion and we'd have period films that had to be made as silent movies! Very annoying!
The extra's are more than passable, particularly given the paucity of extra's on too many HD-DVD releases, and go some way to justifying the high price tag, which Universal have imposed because of the nasty combo-format of the release (there is a Region 1 DVD on the other side of the HD-DVD disc. The Region 2 DVD version is officially released here on the 19th March).
The Commentary by director Allen Coulter is particularly strong, and one of the best director commentaries I've heard in a long time. Coulter explains throughout the film, with no awkward silences, the reasons behind the decisions he made, the cuts and performances he sought. Admittedly it's a bit po-faced, but there's a lot of interesting stuff for film students here, with some neat subliminal directorial tricks used that you probably wouldn't pick up on until they're pointed out on the commentary.
Instead of a single 25 minute 'Making of' we get three 7-10 minute featurettes: Recreating Old Hollywood, Hollywood Then and Now and Behind the Headlines. None are much more than marketing fluff, although they give some interesting background to the making of the film, and show the exquisite attention to detail that the film-makers insisted upon. Five minutes of deleted scenes, finished to the same standard as the main film, complete the extra's, and give more background information than was able to be given in the theatrical cut.
I suspect that for most viewers, the film will be too slow-moving, with not enough action to sustain interest throughout. However for this viewer the film was a gentle, subtle pleasure, and one that improves with repeated viewings. As such it's a recommended purchase, rather than a rental.