Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Hollywoodland: an uneven dance with Californian gloom, going nowhere memorably

The suicide of George Reeves might not have pulled many flags down to half-mast at Hollywood’s film studios back in 1959, but it probably unleashed some kind of rampant emotional trauma among the millions of American kids who worshipped Reeves from his starring role on TV’s Adventures of Superman. Though he began promisingly with a part in Gone With The Wind, Reeves’ career never lived up to his aspirations and never lived down the role of the underwear-clad alien superhero that audiences came to identity him with completely. Despondent and without prospects, Reeves shot himself in the head in his Benedict Canyon home at the age of 45. Or so it seemed…

The lingering ambiguity surrounding Reeves’ death is the engine behind Hollywoodland, the feature debuts of director Allen Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum. Framed by an investigation pursued by private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), Hollywoodland’s a dark bit of Tinsletown self-reflection, an indictment of the circuitry of corruption linking the Hollywood studios with the LAPD, and an ordinary story of one more lost soul chewed up and spit out by the movies.

Brody’s bruised and amused as a cynical opportunist, Jake Gittes with a broken family and without a real career. Ben Affleck convinces as Reeves by contrasting a self-conscious phoney actor’s charm with striking glimpses of inner despair, reminding us that he was actually pretty good as the guilt-ridden lover in the underrated Bounce. Diane Lane, playing Toni, a Warner mogul’s wife and Reeves’ not-so-secret sugar mama, sympathetically embodies middle-age desperation in a town where a woman’s looks count for almost everything. It’s a shame her character’s gradually abandoned to a sort of generalized, theatrical gloom, muttering in a darkened room.

This is the stuff that terrifically lurid movies are made of, but Bernbaum’s approach, in tandem with Coulter’s, sabotages the richer, more resonant aspects of the material by focusing on the attempt to expose a possible cover-up –which goes nowhere– rather than on the conditions that brought about Reeves’ demise. It’s especially disappointing considering the talent in front of the camera. (At the same time, the nowhereness of the film is what's stuck with me the most since seeing it....)

Hollywoodland looks like it got stuck searching for a solid narrative when its sense of atmosphere and emotional texture could have been its strong suit. It’s interesting however that this failed narrative was trying to emulate the wonderfully perverse dynamics of Sunset Blvd: the older woman supporting the washed up talent while actually doing nothing for his career, that unforgettable claustrophobic love affair referenced right down to the message Toni has inscribed into Reeves’ watch: ‘Mad About the Boy!’ It’s an admirable sort of homage, even if it only makes Hollywoodland look even paler by comparison. 


Paul Matwychuk said...

Hey there, JB.

HOLLYWOODLAND interested me when it came out because of the director Allen Coulter, who belongs to the stable of fairly anonymous directors that HBO uses on all of his prestige series--he's done a lot of SOPRANOS episodes, and he's worked on ROME, SIX FEET UNDER, and SEX AND THE CITY as well. It's curious how these HBO directors have managed to remain so obscure even as the shows that they work on (and presumably help shape, albeit not to the same extent as the writers do) get analyzed to death on the internet.

It's also interesting to see how few of them seem able to make a splash on the big screen. You'd think that working in TV would breed the skills that would be valuable in the feature-film world--the ability to turn around a complicated project on a wildly compressed shooting schedule. (Apparently each episode of THE SHIELD, for instance, is shot in just eight days.)

But instead, when these prestige-TV directors make movies, their films, broadly speaking, tend to have pacing problems. They're not exactly crackling with B-movie energy, are they?

HOLLYWOODLAND, for instance, has a lot of atmosphere and some good, suggestive moments, but the bifurcated structure of the screenplay never quite comes into focus.

Or look at someone like Jeremy Podeswa, the Canadian director of such unbearable, slow-paced, little-seen arthouse pics as THE FIVE SENSES and FUGITIVE PIECES, but who has a long, long list of TV credits, from SIX FEET UNDER to CARNIVALE to NIP/TUCK to DEXTER and THE RICHES, all of which (except for CARNIVALE) are pretty lively, trashy shows.

JB said...

I know really need to start watching more TV (how often do you hear that?), but I wonder if part of this phenomena comes down to TV being so much more of a writer's medium, where directors are often required to above all fall into line with regards to the show's style. Maybe when directors with TV experience go into production on a feature the relative flexibility with regards to directorial authorship just overwhelms some of them. They don't have a set world -both the established world of the show and the established world of the production- they can depend on and are expected to take charge of more aspects and have more people looking to them for guidance. Or maybe it's the fact that without the relatively rigid rules of timing on TV, with major narrative shifts happening every few minutes, they actually can't figure out how to pace things, not to mention how to deal with exposition, implication and atmosphere.

In any case, it's interesting for me to go back and post some of these older reviews, to read my initial response and weight it against what finally stuck with me in a given film. In the case of HOLLYWOODLAND, I was surprised at the amount of affection I felt toward my memory of the film, even though I know perfectly well that it has big problems.