Production designer Leslie McDonald brings the film's California noir period atmosphere to brilliant life with an assured eye for detail that immerses the viewer in Hollywood's most fetishized decade. The film's anachronistic title references the original 50-foot Hollywood Hills sign that was erected on the side of Mount Lee by a real estate company in 1923 before the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce dropped its last four letters in 1949 during much-needed repairs.
The word gently signals a defining moment in Hollywood history where sordid reality undermined the polished illusion of celebrity culture.
Hollywoodland thrives on polarities. Debut screenwriter Paul Bernbaum puts together a multi-dimensional narrative puzzle where detective Simo sets out to solve a mystery that connects to his own personal life as the recently divorced father of a young boy whose childhood values have been shattered by the self-destruction of his television hero.
In a morning diner scene that could have been cut from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, Simo presses his former L.A.P.D. partner to give him a hot tip. The hard-nosed plain-clothes detective tells Simo about Reeves' mother's suspicions about her son's death being a homicide after the police department closed the case as a suicide.
Between uncomfortable visits with his distraught son, nagging ex-wife (Molly Parker) and her annoying boyfriend, Simo attempts to reconstruct Reeves' demise at the age of 45, a death that occurred during a house party with Reeves' brash new fiancée Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) present in the next room with several guests. Simo's longingly imagined scenarios for Reeves' possible means of death are fleshed out in narrative cul de sacs of murderous speculation that backfire on the private dick from every direction.
On the other side of Bernbaum's narrative split is Reeves' back-story as an actor on the make whose claim to fame was a bit part in Gone With the Wind. Affleck uses Reeves' approaching middle age to his advantage in radiant flashback scenes with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl now in an open marriage with MGM studio general manager and mob "fixer" Eddie Mannix (played with steamy heat by Bob Hoskins).
Reeves and Mannix set their individually opportunistic sights on one another at a fancy Hollywood dinner. Their romantic spark quickly burns into a full-fledged affair with Mannix eventually footing the bill for Reeves' house in the Hollywood Hills after he lands a multi-year contract for the syndicated TV series that will make him a household name but not a fortune to go with it.
The genius of Hollywoodland is the way in which it explores possible explanations for Reeves' death before providing the audience with a bit of Reeves' silent home footage that Simo carefully watches for telling subtext. As Reeves performs physical acts in his front yard for what he intends to be a wrestling demo film, Affleck exposes the character's inner workings.
He exhibits essential aspects of Reeves that respond humbly to every question raised in the film. The depth of Affleck's tempered emotional enthusiasm tells you everything you need to know. Grade: B+