Show business and film noir have always gone hand in corrupt, bullet-strewn hand. While I have a great affinity for classic, low-budget B-noirs like Detour, there's no denying the appeal of glossy studio pictures like Sunset Boulevard and The Bad and the Beautiful, classic noirs that set out to expose the dirty dealings disguised under Hollywood's glamorous facades.
As if making up for the many years without a big-screen mystery about big-screen mysteries (Has there been a good one since L.A. Confidential?), Hollywood has unleashed two films about grisly, real-life Tinseltown deaths a week apart from each other: Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland and Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia. Both are set during classic Hollywood's heyday (the '40s for Dahlia, the '50s for Hollywoodland), and both would technically be categorized as neo-noirs, but that's where the comparisons end. The utterly uniform Hollywood-land and the completely dazzling Black Dahlia represent opposite ends of the artistic spectrum; one a merely serviceable potboiler and the other an uncompromising opus from an auteur once again at the top of his game.
Resurrecting himself from a critical and box-office slump that included the boxing thriller Snake Eyes (1998), the beautiful but empty Mission to Mars (2000) and the revisionist dream film Femme Fatale (2002), De Palma has finally made a movie in which his bravura filmmaking aesthetic complements an intriguing story rather than smokescreens a mediocre one — his finest example of this since 1996's underrated Mission: Impossible. This is why even those who are irritated by De Palma's flashy formalism can still get enough out of the movie's narrative, an adaptation of James Ellroy's pulp novel.
A penetrating story underlying the novelist's and the director's cynical, grisly, fatalistic view of life, The Black Dahlia focuses on the real-life murder and disembowelment of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) and its impact on two former boxers turned hard-boiled cops. Dwight (Josh Hartnett, continuing to show off the tough side he displayed in Sin City and Lucky Number Slevin) becomes a partner and roommate to Lee (Aaron Eckhart), a former ring rival with a mysterious past and an inflamed temper who lives with Kay Lake, a sexy former hooker gone good (Scarlett Johansson).
The "supercops," as Kay christens them, are faced with dual crises: The gruesome murder of Short and the pending release from prison of Bobby DeWitt, Kay's former pimp, whom Lee locked away years ago.
These are just two of the elements in a serpentine plot that weaves together sinister Hollywood mythology, bribery, deceit, smut films and the secretive, disturbing family of a key murder witness (Hilary Swank's Madeline Linscott). Sequences that seem disparate, disconnected and pointless converge in a spectacular (and spectacularly complicated) conclusion.
The Black Dahlia provides the director ample opportunity to tread over his frequent cinematic fetishes: doppelgängers, femmes fatales, voyeurism and film history. De Palma may have been a director-for-hire on The Black Dahlia, but it's unmistakably his — a violent atmospheric enigma where the shadowy ambiance is palpable.
Funny, then, that Hollywoodland, a film whose theme of "nothing is as it seems" is common to De Palma's best work, could be so turgid and lifeless. Without a visionary behind the camera to execute the difficult demands of neo-noir, the film ultimately flounders. Hollywoodland is so absent of style that it's as if no one directed it. In fact, the hired hand is Coulter, a Sopranos director who brings zero cinematic flair to a script that mostly feels written for television anyway.
Adrien Brody is the best reason to watch Hollywoodland, providing a sarcastic, Bogartian cool to the intrepid Louis Simo, a detective obsessed with unlocking the mystery behind the alleged suicide of TV Superman actor George Reeves. Meanwhile, a parallel, flashback storyline follows Reeves (Ben Affleck) up until his ambiguous death: trying to find work in survival-of-the-fittest Hollywood, starting an affair with the wife of a powerful studio head (Diane Lane) and dealing with the pressures of being Superman 24/7, a role he didn't even want to take.
Reeves' life just isn't interesting enough to warrant so much screen time away from Louis' truth-seeking quest. The murder mystery is far more intelligent than the genuine-artist-trapped-in-pop-icon biopic, which trades insight for heavy-handed criticism of the cult of celebrity and menacing Hollywood corruption. At one point, I expected one of the characters to yell, "You'll never eat lunch in this town again!"
Laboring and needlessly long, Hollywoodland wants to harken back to the leisurely-paced glory days of a Big Sleep. But with no revelations or atmosphere, and bearing all the trappings of lazy cutting-room manipulation, it presents a puzzle hardly worth solving. One only wonders what De Palma could have done with the firstname.lastname@example.org