Like the most famous of Hollywood's cautionary tales, Sunset Boulevard, the real-life mystery Hollywoodland begins with the discovery of a corpse. The dead man is George Reeves, found in his bedroom shot through the head on the night of 16 June 1959. Reeves was an actor who enjoyed a brief dalliance with fame during the Fifties when he played TV's Superman; idolised by a young audience, he fell an early victim to typecasting and failed to make the break into movies he longed for. Killed by his own gun, he seemed another casualty on Hollywood's boulevard of broken dreams, and the police recorded a verdict of suicide.
But was it really? The corpse was still in the morgue when rumours of murder began to leak through Hollywood Hills like marsh gas: how come there were no fingerprints on the gun, and why were there other bullet holes in the floor and ceiling of the deceased's room? Allen Coulter's feature debut, written by Paul Bernbaum, retraces the fateful years preceding Reeves's death and intercuts it with a posthumous investigation that suggests someone else may have pulled the trigger. Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is a stumblebum private eye hired by the late actor's grieving mother (Lois Smith) to pursue a case that the LAPD considers closed. Initially driven by his fee of $50 a day, Louis becomes more absorbed in the job as he unearths Reeves's romantic past and discovers, behind the actor's mask, a man haunted by fear and self-loathing.
That Reeves is played by Ben Affleck is a smart move on the part of the film-makers. Just as Reeves enjoyed early success in Gone With the Wind, so too did Affleck, winning an Oscar aged 25 for Good Will Hunting before hitting a monstrous streak of duds that included Pearl Harbor, The Sum of All Fears, Jersey Girl and the all-time low, Gigli. And let's not even start on his girlfriend at the time. The beefcake smugness had ballooned so grotesquely, you longed for someone to come along and pop it, yet in the end it was Affleck himself who applied the pin with his yuppie lawyer running spectacularly foul of Samuel L Jackson in Changing Lanes (2002). His George Reeves continues that chastened mood, a tall, handsome lunk who has amiability but no great presence - or talent, come to that. Almost from the off he seems resigned to being small-time, and small-screen: "You're talking to the man who defended Camelot with a cardboard sword," he says ruefully of his television role as Sir Galahad.
The first time we see him, he's in a restaurant watching the celebs and edging into a paparazzo shot of Rita Hayworth just so he can see his mug in the papers next morning. The same night he meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a fading beauty who's desperate to keep the wrinkles at bay and thinks this bow-tied toyboy might be just the ticket. That she's also married doesn't seem to matter; her husband Eddie (Bob Hoskins) has a mistress of his own and, what's more, he's an MGM honcho with favours to dispense. So Toni and George cling to one another; she gives him jewellery and a fancy house, he gives her the reflected illusion of youthful dazzle. It's not a relationship built to endure, and by the time of Reeves's death he's living with a heartless floozy (Robin Tunney) who has somehow become engaged to him.
So our gumshoe has three ready-made murder suspects right there: the spurned older woman, the studio-boss husband with his thugs, the disgruntled fiancée. The film is actually pursuing a ghost of its own; you can hear it from the mournful brass blare of Marcelo Zarvos's score and you can see it in the valley drives and canyons of Los Angeles. Remember it, Jake, it's Chinatown. Louis is the private eye who looks but doesn't see, and his flawed sleuthing puts himself and others in mortal danger; he even sustains, like Jake Gittes, a bruising facial disfigurement halfway through the story. But the echoes of the old film do the present one no favours; even if you could match Polanski's direction and Towne's screenplay - which few can - I'm afraid that Brody has little in common with Jack Nicholson, and even less in common with a Fifties private detective. Brody, a fine actor, simply doesn't look right next to the fat-necked bruisers with whom he mingles, and asking us to believe he could rough up an old associate twice his size is preposterous.
It's a shame, because there is half of a good film here - the half dealing with George Reeves's emblematic decline. We know too well the high rate of failure in Hollywood, and there are too many previous warnings for Hollywoodland to be anything more than an elegant variation. But Affleck and Lane give these types a believably human warmth and the shared pathos of people who realise that the leasehold on their looks is about to expire - and can't face the world because of it. That sense of decay is reflected in a shrewd production design that eschews the city's glamour (we know all that) to nose around the seedy apartments and cheap hotels where the real living and dying goes on. Even the colours have a melancholy drabness: when George is fitted out as Superman, his costume hasn't the blue and red vibrancy of the comics but a dreary brown and grey that will suit the low-fi contrasts of black and white television.
Anyone going to Hollywoodland expecting the full noir treatment will be sorely disappointed. The murder case it purports to re-examine merely fries up a few red herrings and picks over the bones. But about other kinds of Hollywood death - the slow fade of a career, the evaporation of beauty - it has bitter truths to tell.