Written by Peter Bernbaum in a style meant to invoke the film noir of the era, Hollywoodland is two stories intertwined into one and proceeds from the enduring rumor that Reeves (Ben Affleck) didn't shoot himself as the Los Angeles Police Department concluded but was, instead, a homicide victim. The picture opens shortly after Reeves' death as two-bit gumshoe Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) tries to insinuate himself into the case. Simo has little reason to believe that Reeves didn't commit suicide, but he tries to convince Reeves' distraught mother (Lois Smith) otherwise so she'll pay him to investigate.
Simo's investigation leads us backwards into Reeves' life. We are reminded that he had a small speaking part in Gone With the Wind and worked steadily as an actor throughout the 1940s and '50s. (His more than 100 roles included appearances in Rancho Notoroius and From Here to Eternity.) But despite his good looks, natural athleticism and affable charm, Reeves was never able to make the leap from supporting player to star -- until he was cast as Clark Kent/Superman. But as depicted here, he took the Superman gig with considerable reservation and on the assumption that it would flame out quickly. The success of the TV series brought him fame but little sustained wealth and left him so typecast that he found it difficult to move on. At the end of his life, Reeves was considering a foray into professional wrestling.
Simo's digging reveals puzzling details and motives for murder. Reeves' pistol was fired three times with two bullets lodging in the floor but somehow emerged without finger prints. His body was bruised on the arms and shoulders, as if he'd been in a struggle. He'd recently survived a car accident when his car lost all its brake fluid. Meanwhile, Simo discovers Reeves had a longtime and almost shockingly open relationship with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a former actress almost a decade his senior, all while Toni was married to Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), a movie mogul with the personality of a pit bull. Near the end of his life, in a romantic move Hollywoodland suggests he had plenty of reason to regret, Reeves dumped Toni and became involved with Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), a hard-partying, high-maintenance floozie who presumed Reeves was rich when he wasn't. The box canyon of his career gave Reeves reason to put a bullet in his brain, but Eddie, Leonore and Toni emerge as plausible murder suspects. All of this proves thoroughly intriguing. But perhaps because the case has never been reopened, the filmmakers are reluctant to choose among the various possibilities they develop.
Instead, Hollywoodland ultimately tries to wrench itself from a movie about George Reeves into a movie about Louis Simo and to treat Simo's investigation as a march through spiritual fire, a descent into hell and an opportunity for redemption. Simo is separated from his wife (Molly Parker) and sometimes irresponsible in caring for his 8-year-old son. Peering into Reeves' life apparently teaches Simo lessons about his own. But we don't understand how or why, and in the end this narrative thread remains unraveled too.
Despite its dissatisfying narrative resolutions, Hollywoodland offers a memorable array of performances. Brody is convincingly complicated as a man half-submerged in sleaze who nonetheless clings to some of his moral moorings. Lane is really strong as a woman drawn to Reeves as her own fountain of youth. Her beauty is fetching and her vulnerability is heartbreaking. And best of all is Affleck, who has simply never been better. Until this performance I might have put him in league with Reeves as a performer with an appealing surface and inadequate depth. Here he exhibits the ability to reveal a character in multiple layers. Affleck's is the career-changing performance Reeves would have loved to have given.