While investigating the death of small-screen Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck), low-rent private detective Simo (Adrien Brody) flourishes the crime-scene photo of another grisly star flame-out, aiming to pin both on studio head Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). The definitive tabloid source on such matters, Hollywood Babylon, reveals the slumped lady in that photo to be Carole Landis, a real 40s starlet and Seconal suicide. It’s an unexpectedly gritty detail for a movie where frat-boy savant Affleck actually plays an underappreciated, middling actor who deserved so much more. It’s also typical of a movie where the supporting sideshows are regular relief from the incuriously explored Hollywood tragedy.
Hollywoodland, like Clark Kent, leads a double life, toggling between Reeves’s rise to dubious fame as a kiddie idol and Simo’s postmortem muckraking. Superchump’s success is doubly humiliating because of the hovering influence of his sugar mommy, none other than Mrs. Mannix (Diane Lane). As if in unconscious rebellion, he ditches her for a younger woman, Leonore (a bracingly tart-tongued Robin Tunney). Simo meanwhile is recovering from a divorce while trying to be a good father — a bedraggled would-be resonant subplot.
The tacking between past and present neatly expresses how Reeves’ pop myth eclipsed his actual self and aspirations. But Affleck, not even asked to shoulder a biopic’s usual lumbering load, remains an actor who does not pass the laugh test; sometimes he can be touchingly pathetic, but that’s not the same as performing. Brody’s natural bebop groove at least plays nicely off his hopelessly square object of study. The underdog highlight as ever is Hoskins, imbuing Mannix with the caginess and brutality of a Hollywood don. Opens September 8