starring Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, Ben Affleck, Bob Hoskins
screenplay by Paul Bernbaum
directed by Allen Coulter
THE BLACK DAHLIA
starring Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank
screenplay by Josh Friedman, based on the novel by James Ellroy
directed by Brian De Palma
starring Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, Marisa Tomei, Didier Flamand
screenplay by Bent Hamer and Jim Stark, based on the novel by Charles Bukowski
directed by Bent Hamer
by Walter Chaw Deadening, dull, sepia-drenched faux-noir period hokum of a suddenly popular stripe, Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland casts lantern-jawed, wooden-countenanced Ben Affleck as his way-back literal and metaphorical doppelgänger George Reeves. An apparent suicide that has fostered a small measure of conspiracy theories, Reeves, television's original Superman, is shot in the head, naked in bed, on a summer night in 1959, briefly throwing a generation of kids into minor existential turmoil. But casting Reeves's death into suspicion is a far stickier wicket: Even with the introduction of a woefully-underwritten fictional gumshoe (Adrien Brody) with his own crew-cut, wayward boy, and ice queen ex (Molly Parker) to match, the suggestion that someone in the portly statue's coterie (including his wife-of-a-studio-bigwig-mistress, played by the ageless Diane Lane) might have had a motive for slaying him is given a quick spin and then stabled without a whimper. What's left is the typical and unsurprising Hollywood fable of the high price of fame and the dreadful cost of its pursuit. The central irony that drives Hollywoodland is that, in its desperate attempt to make a mystery of Reeves's death, the only thing it succeeds in doing is cataloguing the myriad reasons Reeves had to justifiably cap himself.
Affleck gets high marks for--as he did in Jersey Girl--being self-aware enough to assay an exceptionally limited, traditionally handsome lucky duck who stumbled into the executive washroom only to find himself handing out towels and mints there a few years later. If his portrayal of a guy who doesn't know what he has until he shits it away by reaching for something of which he's not capable rings true, it's not because he's suddenly found a fountain of appeal, but because he's really just playing himself: too dumb to be interesting, too smart not to mourn that. The difference between Affleck and, say, Kevin Costner, is that Costner's limited in an amiable, folksy way while Affleck is limited in a mopey, sad bastard kind of way. Brody, then, is given the burden of manufacturing a magnetic performance in Hollywoodland (a film that's more interesting for the fact and timing of it than anything else), and, saddled with a stock character tracked in the usual scenario, he succeeds merely in highlighting how beneath him is all this perfunctory time-suck. If Affleck is the best thing about Hollywoodland, it has something to do with the kind of symbol Affleck has become for this particular variety of Tinsel Town failure: To be great in Hollywoodland, unlike Brody, Affleck doesn't have to try.
The two fictional gumshoes in Brian De Palma's hotly-anticipated adaptation of James Ellroy's brilliant L.A. noir The Black Dahlia (and who better to join in holy matrimony than the insane Ellroy and the almost-as-insane De Palma?) are Bucky (Josh Hartnett) and Lee (Aaron Eckhart). Detectives, boxers, and best buddies, together with Lee's bombshell wife Kay (Scarlett Johansson) they form Ellroy's tarnished holy trinity. A tale of corruption and betrayal set against the backdrop of snuff films and the notorious murder and mutilation of Elizabeth "The Black Dahlia" Short (the always-unspeakably sexy Mia Kirshner), The Black Dahlia is the kind of De Palma plastic fantastic that renders his films candy-coloured genre dissertations. De Palma's noir is as slick as a Hollywood love letter should be, but gone is the auteur's sickness. The Black Dahlia is a lot more like his The Untouchables than the Chinatown to which it aspires--a technically-marvellous picture (its use of sound is astonishing) overburdened by a couple of actors simply incapable of saying the words.
Lee and Bucky, dubbed "fire" and "ice" for their respective demeanours in the ring, forge their bond in the squared circle in an energetic boxing scene that, like much of the first half of The Black Dahlia, bristles with the promise that De Palma is returning to his '70s and early-'80s heyday. Lee becomes obsessed with the lurid Black Dahlia murder, driven to distraction and--it's suggested in one of a few fumbled plotlines--paranoia about his best pal's friendship with his doll-like ex-whore of a wife. Eckhart is the best he's ever been, following up his career-turn in Thank You for Smoking with a role that finally frees him from the saddle of unctuous charmer. He's all virility and barely-restrained rage, filling the same role that Russell Crowe filled opposite Guy Pearce in another Ellroy adaptation, L.A. Confidential. Hartnett, though, seems lost inside the material, not so much "ice" as "gaffed"--a spectator who falls in with a hideously vamping Hilary Swank as a bi-curious femme fatale heiress so obvious in her machinations that you feel disdain as opposed to sympathy when Bucky falls into her web.
That being said, the scene where Bucky is introduced to his girlfriend's wacko blueblood family is one of the most satisfying moments of 2006, at once knowing homage to the first-person experimentation of Robert Montgomery's POV Phillip Marlowe flick Lady in the Lake and a delirious flip back to the mad, splitscreen-and-time-warp sensibility of vintage De Palma. It's almost worth the price of admission, but then there's Hartnett's befuddled glower and Johansson's second turn in a row that casts her most glaring weaknesses (glibness, eloquence, mystery) into sharp relief. Substitute Kirshner for Swank and a pulse for Hartnett and you'd instantly have visceral rationale for half the relationships in the film. Without some serious gravitas, The Black Dahlia flies apart under the strain of Ellroy and De Palma's complementary psychoses.
Maybe Hartnett's role should've gone to Matt Dillon, himself a revelation in Bent Hamer's Factotum--though the rest of the picture is deadpan in a way that left me wondering if both Dillon's Henry Chianski characterization and Charles Bukowski's source material weren't the butt of an absurdist joke. It's a movie at cross-purposes with itself, one hemisphere mocking the other with its own blank regard--but isn't it fair to offer that Bukowski can only really be taken with that proverbial grain of salt? Especially on film, where the internal monologues can undermine the actual torpor of the self-styled poet laureate of alcoholism and vagrancy. Factotum is the successful version of Barbet Schroeder's Barfly in that it understands that what Bukowski is all about is the wry, maybe facetious, celebration of a certain kind of alcohol-aided inertia. It's too bad that a near-constant voiceover providing highlights from the book upon which the film is based distracts from the splendid absolute nothing of Chianski's existence. Without a hint that Chianski has a gift for turning his professional indolence (Factotum is essentially a series of vignettes depicting this loser pissing away a long line of menial jobs) into turns of phrase soaked in wounded machismo, this would play almost like a Chaplin picture. With it, though, Hamer appears to be apologizing for sticking a pin in Bukowski's inflated sense of self. There's a masterpiece in here somewhere--a film that redefines noir for our lost moment, adrift in the doldrums of our decades-long post-traumatic stress disorder, self-medicated and self-deluded into pie-eyed poesy. Originally published: September 15, 2006.