Thursday, September 7, 2006

Film noir was always a genre about our deepest fantasies: Tough-talking, gorgeous dames in distress and down-on-their-luck gumshoes who had guns and knew how to use them could hold their own against the most depraved villains.

That’s one reason filmmakers continue to exploit the genre’s conventions. A notable recent example was this year’s “Brick,” a well-executed high school noir. This month sees two more noirs hit the big screen. However, both these movies — “Hollywoodland,” opening today, and “The Black Dahlia,” opening next week — take their dark, unlikely stories from reality.

“Hollywoodland” starts on June 16, 1959, at the home of TV’s Superman. George Reeves, out of work and out of favor, appears to have shot himself. His fiancee, Leonore Lemmon, tells police the 49-year-old actor had been suicidal.

Reeves’ mother doesn’t buy it. So she hires gumshoe Louis Simo (Adrien Brody, “The Pianist”) to investigate.

Simo takes the case — it’s a way to make a quick buck and maybe even get himself some publicity. However, as he delves deeper into the details, the opportunist actually starts to care. Why did Leonore and her friends wait 45 minutes to call the police after hearing the gunshot? Why were there no fingerprints — not even Reeves’ own — on the pistol?

This real-life unsolved mystery has plenty of dramatic potential. In his feature film debut, director Allen Coulter (“The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City”) makes the most of it while never going over the top.

Simo’s investigations are interwoven with flashbacks that tell the Reeves story. The biggest revelation isn’t what may — or may not — have happened to the actor. It’s how well he’s portrayed by Ben Affleck.

The “Good Will Hunting” star has lost all of his smugness and simply becomes Superman: first suave and confident, then angry and finally broken.

The enormous success of “Superman” turned out to be a curse — Reeves is typecast for life. One of the funniest scenes in the movie comes when Reeves is inserted into “From Here to Eternity.” Studio execs cut the scenes when a test audience refuses to take Superman seriously.

This never actually happened — it’s one of the few points in the Reeves flashbacks where writer Paul Bernbaum thought real life wasn’t dramatic enough.

The troublesome woman in this noir is Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM boss Eddie Mannix and Reeves’ older mistress. “I don’t mind a man who drinks before breakfast, but it’s impolite not to offer me any,” she tells Reeves in a delivery worthy of Lauren Bacall. Miss Lane steals every scene she inhabits. She’s radiant when she’s buying Reeves a $12,000 house and perfectly vicious when he leaves her.

As a publicity-seeking detective, Mr. Brody transcends the stereotype. Robin Tunney (“Prison Break”) is suitably tarty as Reeves’ gold-digging girlfriend.

The period look of the film is spot-on. Simo’s seedy hotel is as perfect a specimen of Southern California as the Mannixes’ mansion. Marcelo Zarvos’ score is an unobtrusive but welcome accompaniment.

The film’s dual stories are made whole because of something Simo and Reeves had in common: a talent for getting themselves into newspaper photographs. Publicity brings one man misery, the other redemption. But as in any good noir, nothing comes easy in “Hollywoodland.”


TITLE: “Hollywoodland”

RATING: R (Foul language, some violence and sexual content)

CREDITS: Directed by Allen Coulter. Written by Paul Bernbaum.

RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes



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