"Hollywoodland" probes the possible suicide of '50's TV "Superman" actor George Reeves, while "The Black Dahlia" covers the 1947 mutilation killing of struggling actress, Elizabeth Short. Of the two films, "Dahlia" is the most flamboyant but, as helmed by Director Brian De Palma, it's also the most confusing. In fact, audiences leaving the Rockville Centre Theater on Saturday of the opening weekend seemed baffled, as was this critic.
Based on the James Ellroy crime novel, "Dahlia" begins as a boxing film with two police partners, Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), staging a bout that may be fixed for political reasons. Lee has a live-in girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), who has the hots for Bucky. After a big stakeout/shootout on Crenshaw Boulevard, a bewilderingly bloody corpse is discovered in a field behind the crime scene. One atrocity apparently has nothing to do with the other.
The body belongs to Ms. Short (Mia Kirshner). It's cut in half, the blood drained, a "Joker"-like smile carved on her face. Although the police partners are supposed to be covering the other crime, they become obsessed with what becomes known as "The Black Dahlia" murder (Short wore the exotic flower in her abundant black hair). Hopped up on Benzedrine, Lee goes bonkers. Bucky follows the trail to a lesbian bar, where he meets Black Dahlia lookalike, Madeline Linscott (Hilary Swank), whose father is a big-shot real estate developer. She's also a hottie, soon getting into Bucky's pants.
The story grows increasingly complex and over-the-top, moving very close to comic-book comedy. Particularly wacky is a dinner at Big Daddy Linscott's' mansion, featuring a "Sunset Boulevard" performance from Fiona Shaw as Madeline's drug-addicted mother, Ramona.
However, despite the insanity, the actors are all taking things dead seriously, although one can't help but wonder whether anyone (including the director) understands what is going on in the mixed up mess. Where's Mel Brooks when we need him?
The Josh Friedman script is loaded with so many multiple subplots in its attempt to synthesize the Ellroy novel that I was expecting the O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake, Phil Hartman and William Shatner LA "murder" stories to find their way into the stew. But, what De Palma does capture is the total decadence of a land where dreams often turn into the darkest of nightmares.
If you must see "The Black Dahlia," you may want to read the novel first to keep the story straight. Some books are simply too complex to condense into a two-hour film.