"When it comes to publicity," says one of the smartly dressed heavies in Hollywoodland, "what's true and what's false doesn't really matter."
He should know. The speaker happens to be a professional PR guy from a major motion picture studio, someone who bends the truth for a living. For men like him, Rashomon-like notions of the truth being whatever we choose them to be — well, that's just a convenient starting point. The darker spin that Hollywoodland and its sundry characters suggest is that the truth is essentially a business proposition. What is true, they confide in rare moments of candor, is whatever we're made or paid to believe is true.
That kind of thinking fuels an infernal machinery resulting in too many otherwise sensible people buying into Paris Hilton or Snakes on a Plane — and it's also behind what in Hollywoodland might just be a lurid celebrity murder being packaged and sold as a cut-and-dry case of suicide.
That's the juicy mystery driving Hollywoodland — a movie that, despite what you might think, is named not for some dead Warhol superstar, but for that piece of prime California real estate specializing in the manufacture and sale of dreams. One of those dreams, an especially potent one bought into by millions of kids during the 1950s (the period during which the movie takes place), was the dream of Superman; and it is George Reeves — the square-jawed actor who played the Man of Steel in the era's wildly popular TV series — who is the dead celebrity at the center of Hollywoodland.
Director Allen Coulter, making his feature film debut after years helming smart, popular TV shows like The Sopranos, fashions Hollywoodland as a sly update of an old-fashioned detective yarn, filled with muted tones, cool, noir-ish jazz and plenty of unsavory characters lurking just beneath the fat, smooth belly of Eisenhower's America. Coulter's film doesn't pigeonhole itself stylistically, but much of its dialogue is perfectly hardboiled, the men are tough, the women fast and the mood mostly pitched somewhere between reserved melancholy and flat-out apocalyptic. Like its most obvious late-20th century precedents, Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, Hollywoodland is a period piece that faithfully incorporates the whole noir box of tricks, while displaying filmmaking savvy that makes it hard to mistake the movie as anything but modern.
Every noir mystery has to have to have its anti-hero, and Hollywoodland has Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a down-on-his-luck private eye camped out in a sleazy L.A. motel populated by freaks, losers and one particularly leathery old skeleton who hangs out by the pool pumping iron. Simo spends his days drinking, diddling his secretary and picking up odd jobs from distraught husbands who hire him to get the dirt on their philandering wives. (The truth, we're told, hardly ever makes the husbands any happier.) During down time, Louis takes care of family business, bickering with his ex-wife and offering well-meaning but less than convincing comfort to his young son — who's upset, like every other kid in America, over Superman's apparent suicide.
One thing leads to another and Simo soon finds himself on the Superman case, hired by no less than Reeves' own mother (Lois Smith), a tough old bird convinced that her son's death was actually a murder. As is usually the case in the land of noir, the deeper you dig, the murkier things get, and Louis' investigation begins yielding a wealth of unsettling, contradictory information, as well as a host of possible killers.
Everybody has something to hide, it seems, and the more Simo noses around — poking holes in the official stories of everyone from a cast-aside mistress (a remarkable Diane Lane), to the LAPD, to a major Hollywood studio or two — the more enemies he makes and the more the walls seem to be closing in around him.
Coulter and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum weave a complicated (sometimes convoluted) web here, occasionally plunging deep into Rashomon territory and letting scenes play out from multiple perspectives, while dovetailing Simo's ongoing investigation with flashbacks to key events in Reeves' life. After Superman was cancelled, we learn, much of America had little use for an aging, out-of-work Reeves (Ben Affleck, for once using his innate woodenness to advantage), even as the actor found himself typecast for a role he couldn't bring himself to respect. Reeves had plenty of reasons to kill himself, as it turns out, but Hollywoodland becomes an even more interesting proposition as it piles on the reasons others might have had for wanting him dead.
The filmmakers drop hints as to where the truth may actually lie but are careful not to give too much away, even as they suggest intriguing parallels between Simo and the famous corpse he's investigating. Both men seem to have fallen from grace, angry at themselves and at the world for collecting paychecks for something they're probably too good for. Even more important, both are victims of the changing times, as Hollywoodland duly notes the simplistically idealistic "truth, justice and the American way" shtick of the '50s giving way to the fuzzier, ever darker moral parameters of the '60s. Reeves was hit particularly hard by this shift, an old-school star who couldn't make the transition when tastes changed to "all that squinting and mumbling" (as one Hollywoodland-er puts it) of the Brando-Dean method axis.
Hollywoodland doesn't bring all of its disparate strands to the most satisfying conclusion, but it's a pleasure just watching all the elaborately orchestrated chaos come to a boil. By the time his investigation approaches its crescendo, Simo's face is more banged-up than Jack Nicholson's in Chinatown and the gumshoe is frantically driving around with a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand, a cigarette butt burning the fingers of the other, his desire to simply milk the case for money morphed into a raging personal obsession.
The movie practically demands our empathy for Brody's sad, ranting wreck, but Hollywoodland reserves its most heartbreaking encounter for a relatively minor character, the jilted mistress played by Diane Lane. Shut away in the darkened room of a large, unhappy mansion, we see her one final time as a past-her-prime grand dame with a genuinely crazed look in her eye, staring off into the distance like Gloria Swanson at the end of Sunset Boulevard, finally ready for her close-up. For her, reality and illusion, what's true and what's not, has finally blurred into one vast, indistinguishable mess, and Hollywoodland wouldn't have it any other way.