Ben Affleck has the buffed teeth and squared shoulders of an early matinee idol, and like many screen stars who flicker more than they blaze, he has scraped by on smooth looks and twinkly amiability. The critical ingredient he lacks is presence, and that’s why, in a new film about the perils of Hollywood in the 1950s, Affleck gives his finest performance yet as George Reeves, a bit player of the 1940s and early ’50s who reached for the stars and got stuck instead with television. An affable corn-fed Iowan with a murky family history, Reeves got his break in 1939 as one of the Tarleton brothers who fawned around Miz Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. That turned out to be as glamorous as things would ever get for Reeves on the big screen: After the unexpected success of the low-budget 1951 movie Superman and the Mole-Men, he settled in as the low-key star of the equally profitable television series Adventures of Superman.

Playing pitchman for truth, justice and the American way to an audience of millions of adoring kids apparently never slaked Reeves’ thirst for the big time, and in 1959, at age 45, he was found dead of a gunshot wound in his Hollywood Hills home. His death was ruled a suicide, but on the flimsy pretext of two more bullet holes that turned up a few days later under the bedroom carpet, first-time director Allen Coulter and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum have puffed up Reeves’ private tragedy into a murder mystery of which neither seems more than marginally persuaded. In the interest of plot layering, deep thematic parallels and L.A.-noirish ambiance — or perhaps because they sensed there was little to work with — the filmmakers have cooked up a private eye, Louis Simo (a showy and distracting Adrien Brody), who doggedly pursues his suspicions of foul play to the detriment of his own family life. Coulter, a clever young alumnus of the Sopranos/Sex and the City/Six Feet Under circuit, lathers up a lot of flashback flummery that plays out three different versions of what happened the night Reeves died, then ties it all too neatly into a dreary tale of subpar fathers and their emotionally hungry sons.

Hollywoodland is no more than rote about the hollow heart of American heroism, and Bernbaum’s grandiose claim that Reeves’ death represents “a loss of innocence for a whole generation” is, to judge by the continuing legs of Superman on large and small screens alone, rubbish. It’s also an underestimation of the capacity of children — even children raised on Leave It to Beaver instead of Beavis and Butt-Head — to absorb tragedy and human contradiction without significant damage to their little psyches. Still, the film has potent things to say about the way Hollywood dreams can raise, then crush, the spirits of those with more ambition than chops. Reeves had a modest talent, and he wasn’t a self-destructive swinger like that other reluctant television hero Bob Crane, eviscerated in Paul Schrader’s far superior (and far nastier) Auto Focus. Affleck’s subtly laid-back performance makes of Reeves a plausibly blurry figure, a common-or-garden opportunist who can slide into a photo-op with Rita Hayworth or Burt Lancaster before the bouncers move in. Genial, charming and self-deprecating, Reeves goes on to play the TV game, showing up in costume for personal appearances in which throngs of screaming kids test his faltering invincibility. For all his dreams of directing, Reeves half knows that he doesn’t quite cut it, and so he both leans on and tries to fend off Toni Mannix, the former Ziegfeld girl — wistfully played by Diane Lane as a has-been in her own right — who has the wisdom to understand that his reach exceeds his grasp, and to love him all the more for it.

Ambivalent as they are about the cinema of paranoia, Coulter and Bernbaum can’t make us care much whether Reeves killed himself or was whacked by Mannix’s husband (Bob Hoskins), an MGM executive with connections to the Mob; by his conniving fiancée (an amusingly pert Robin Tunney); or even, indirectly, by his mother (Lois Smith). But this film is brave enough to admit that not all failed movie careers are the result of evil corporate suits, and Affleck makes us care that this likable but weak-minded man threw away what was solid and good in his life for the chimera of fame. (Simo’s parallel private drama, by comparison, is a pale, wan creature.) If nothing else, Hollywoodland will blanch the cheeks of unrecognized actors, screenwriters and directors biding their time all over this town, anxious victims of the pipe dream that keeps promising stardom and riches just around the next corner, if only they’ll keep the rest of their lives on hold just that little while longer.

HOLLYWOODLAND | Directed by ALLEN COULTER | Written by PAUL BERNBAUM | Produced by GLENN WILLIAMSON | Released by Focus Features | At selected theaters

LA Weekly