This review is spoiler-laden:
Going into the movie, I probably knew more about the topic than I should have. I do not consider myself to be any sort of expert in matters George Reeves, but my reading on Superman has lent itself to some reading on the life and death of George Reeves.
I believe that there is very good reason to think that George Reeves did not kill himself. But I don't know. But it certainly colored how I saw the movie.
The film, itself, is a sort of mix between a standard detective picture and Citizen Kane flashback sequences (also used in Immortal Beloved). The detective in question is Louis Simo, a fictionalized character/ convenient amalgamation of many real people who lives the standard movie detective life of the shabby apartment/ office, the messy divorce and kid left behind, and a girlfriend who will dump him before the end of the picture.
Ben Affleck, who is never as old as the character he is portraying, especially for the second half of the film, still manages to portray a reasonable fascimile of Reeves without giving in to parody or imitation. We've got lots of Reeves to look at, and with six seasons of The Adventures of Superman to pull from, Affleck manages to use that both to his advantage and manages to overcome the problem of mis-playing someone with whom some viewers might be fairly familiar.
For me, the story failed on a few fronts.
I take some umbrage at insertion of a fictional detective with a fictional dysfunctional family life as the framing device for the film. The film is really the story of Louis Simo chasing down the truth, and coming to the revelation that mediocrity in Hollywood is okay. A suspect moral, I think, but the lesson we're to understand Reeves' death has taught us is that hoping to become something better than what you are is a way to drive yourself mad. At least in Hollywood. At the end we're supposed to get really excited to see Simo in a suit (I guess he's gotten a straight job) and is coming over to check on his kid in the two bedroom LA-style tract house. With a promise of him giving up on the chance for the abstract greatness of private detective work, I guess. Hooray?
Further, the movie really spares no expense in setting up the husband of Reeves' spurned lover as a potential murder suspect, then backs down completely. This build-up includes details that seemingly make no sense if Mannix is NOT the murderer, such as an MGM rep's appearance at Reeves' funeral and the one scene between Hoskins as Mannix and Simo. Add in some mysterious tarot cards at the crime scene, and some fudgy actual details of the murder included in the film, and the final resolution seems like a lot of back-peddling.
Which raises the question: Did the producers wimp out? As folks looking for jobs in LA once Hollywoodland was in the can, did a moment of clarity tell these guys that fingering a studio exec using studio resources to bump a prominent actor might not be a good idea, career-wise?
I'm also fairly certain that as a non-actor, the melancholy and despair presented by Affleck as Reeves at his lot in life as the Man of Steel is something that's fairly foreign to me as a person (though, certainly not Affleck). Whether a personal failure or one of the movie, I felt that there was too much telling and not enough showing of Reeves' frustration at not being able to land other roles, and it was difficult to garner much sympathy for Reeves as a working actor and kept man, aside from the "Here to Eternity" sequence (which, I've read Reeves and Mannix did not actually attend). That said, as Superman was ending, Reeves had directed a few episodes of AoS, and as the movie indicates, was making a move to television directing. His career wasn't exactly over, though it might have been over in front of the lens. It's a detail, but a detail glossed over in the movie. And as the movie is trying to point to the certainty of Reeves' suicide, the ommission becomes somewhat problematic.
Reeves' death is a huge questionmark, and that lends itself to Rashoman type-speculating. Unfortunately, none of the answers provided by the film-makers are particularly satisfying. And that means that the movie isn't particularly satisfying, either.
Brody isn't bad, but there's a bit of New York to his LA born and raised detective. Diane Lane is excellent as Toni Mannix, and makes a very believable romantic interest for Reeves.
Some additional minutia:
It also can't help that I have read multiple conflicting stories regarding whether or not Adventures of Superman was actually cancelled. After all, as a syndicated show, the principles never knew whether the show was actually cancelled or not until someone called them to show up for work. Secondly, in the wake of the death of Reeves, the studio tried to put two other shows on the air (Superpup and Superboy), indicating that they planned for more Superman product. In fact, they used the exact same set for Superpup as AoS, so they hadn't torn down the sets as if the show was over. Further, I'd read that Noel Neill was under the impression that additional seasons were in the future and that Reeves' death was what ended the program.
For some eye-brow raising comments, you can also turn to a recent Noel Neill interview at the Supermanhomepage. It's known Noel was not necessarily socially involved with Reeves off the set, but it's definitely worth reading.
Phyllis Coates, who played Lois Lane for the first season of Adventures of Superman (Neill had predated her in the Kirk Alyn serials), also takes issue with the portrayal of Reeves and events. Read here.
Noel Neill was interviewed on KryptonFan this week. There is some mention of Hollywoodland. 02-28-2007