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The First Superman

An unconventional biopic, "Hollywoodland" explores an early TV hero

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It doesn't have a lot of heroes in it either, at least not the likely kind. Superman himself, Reeves (Ben Affleck), takes the gig as much as a way to stop drinking before breakfast as a way to salvage his ailing career. Sarcastic about it when he's not morose, he certainly doesn't see playing the Man of Steel as the chance of a lifetime. How times have changed. We're used to seeing these kinds of projects get the biggest budgets and the most high-caliber talent. Reeves' costume is brown and gray, because red and blue doesn't have the contrast necessary for black-and-white television. Some laundry detergent company will sponsor them, Reeves and the producers hope. Maybe they'll even get to do a color episode.

Reeves may feel ridiculous about his predicament, but children all over the American TV-watching landscape scurry inside like mice when it's "Adventures of Superman" hour. And they are, as a worshipful collective, shocked when their patron saint dies of a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in 1959. One of those impressionable young boys mesmerized under Reeves' glow belongs to private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). Simo, who should have a toothpick in his mouth even if he doesn't, is hired by Reeves' mother (Lois Smith), who doesn't believe a word about his suicide and by investigating the case gets dragged into what might be a scandal involving elite Hollywood power brokers.

"Hollywoodland" plays like "Chinatown" meets "L.A. Confidential" meets "Hoffa," and it's a much more interesting way to tell a story about someone's life than just following him or her around as they do impressive things. In fact, had Bernbaum and Coulter pushed any harder, they might have achieved a fragmented structure approaching the mysteriousness of "Citizen Kane." As it is, Simo's investigations don't obtain any real clues or witnesses that would offer rival accounts. They merely dovetail with what the movie sees as the truth: a slightly above-average guy who was slightly below the quality of a star, or just wasn't lucky enough to become one. So he sank into a low-key melancholy of bottles and cigarettes. But did he kill himself? This is the quarry the filmmakers have decided to hound, sometimes to the detriment of the picture.

A defining moment in Reeves' life as recounted by the movie is his affair with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of producer Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). George and Toni meet at a star-filled Hollywood nightspot. She helps him land the role in "Adventures of Superman," keeps him in a comfy bungalow and stays up late worrying what starlet he's keeping there with him. Reeves is one of the first actors to learn what a plum role on TV will do to your movie career. He's too recognizable to be in pictures anymore, and when the Superman days are over, the only part his agent (Jeffrey DeMunn) can find him is on the professional wrestling circuit. It doesn't matter anyway. The former Man of Steel is too out of shape to go through with it.

"Hollywoodland" has many fine moments, but it is not totally believable, probably because its evidence for foul play is thin. The filmmakers push onward anyway, but this story is much better when it makes simple observations. There's a lot of big reaching at the end for resolution, but the finer moments are smaller and earlier on, like when we find Reeves on a set after the show has gone color, about to give a live demonstration as Superman to an audience of screaming children. His preparation method involves a flask of whiskey and a hearty smoke. But, on cue, he puts down his vices and busts through a fence into the world of make-believe. "Hollywoodland" tries to tie everything up with generalities, but real interest is in that kind of dispassionate detail. (R) 126 min. *** S



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