What Just Happened? (United States, 2008)
Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog was as pointed, funny, and intelligent a political satire as there has been in the last 15 years. Now, with Robert De Niro once again on board, Levinson has turned his camera toward his own backyard. What Just Happened?, based on the nonfiction memoirs of producer Art Linson, is a satirical jab to Hollywood's solar plexus that proves the argument that sometimes the most absurd things in life are the true ones. While this movie is fiction, there's so much fact in it that it's more real than many of today's so-called "documentaries." The problem is that the movie plays like one long in-joke. Who really cares about all this stuff? Hollywood types. They'll gobble this up while the rest of us yawn. If someone made a movie about your place of work, you'd probably be engrossed but anyone without a close association would likely be unimpressed. So it is with What Just Happened? This isn't a bad movie; it simply makes the mistake of believing that it has a wider appeal than is actually the case.
Ben (De Niro) is one of Hollywood's A-list producers, but he is suddenly existing in the eye of a perfect storm of bad luck. His latest picture, Fiercely, has been eviscerated at a studio-sponsored test screening. The bad-boy director, Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott), is opposed to making any changes, including re-working the ending in which a dog is shot in the head. However, since Jeremy doesn't have final cut, the studio head, Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener), informs him that either he changes it or she'll pull it from Cannes and re-cut it herself. Meanwhile, another of Ben's projects is in trouble. Bruce Willis has shown up overweight and with a full beard and Ben is given an ultimatum for that project: get Bruce cleanshaven and in shape or the movie will be put on hold. Bruce is solidly opposed to this and threatens to do some very nasty things to Ben. As if that isn't bad enough, Ben is having trouble letting go of his ex-wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn). He still thinks of her as his wife and the "separation therapy" sessions they are attending as a couple isn't making things easier.
Much of what occurs during the course of this film - the ego pacifying, the backstabbing, the victory of commerce over art - is representative of how things work in Hollywood. We are being given the opportunity to peer behind the curtain, and it's not a pretty sight. But What Just Happened? isn't especially insightful or entertaining. The Player worked this same ground to much better effect, providing a satire that was not only wickedly funny but also held the viewer's attention. Linson has been a producer since the '70s, so he knows his stuff but, while some of the vignettes are interesting, the movie often feels more like a series of poorly connected sketches than a fully developed motion picture. What Levinson achieved with Wag the Dog has eluded him here.
The cast is top notch, with notable actors lining up to bite the hand that feeds them. Once upon a time, this would have been considered an atypical role for De Niro, but the actor has diversified enough in recent years that Ben is an effective fit. This isn't De Niro the tough guy; this is De Niro the stressed-out, deluded mover-and-shaker who's intimidated by the thought of a physical confrontation with Bruce Willis. Stanley Tucci and John Turturro have small parts, as does Catherine Keener, who has somehow become typecast as a bitch. (When did that happen?) The aforementioned Willis and Sean Penn gamely lampoon themselves, playing exaggerated versions of their tabloid personalities. In the weirdest bit of casting, Robin Wright Penn, the real-life wife of Sean Penn, plays Ben's wife. (Reminiscent of the Julia Roberts situation in Ocean's 12.)
Since I'm a film critic, it may be that the behind-the-scenes machinations of Hollywood are of more interest to me than they may be to the average viewer. Even taking that into account, I was no more than variably diverted by What Just Happened? Despite being satirical in nature, the movie is rarely funny. In fact, there's something a little sad about seeing how seriously Hollywood types take themselves. If The Player set the bar high for this sub-genre, Levinson's attempt, which too often falls prey to self-indulgence and tedium, comes up significantly short. Those who work in the movie industry or live in Los Angeles may be close enough to this material for it to have resonance, but the rest of the world is more likely to be bored than entertained.
What Just Happened? (United States, 2008)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, Robin Wright Penn, Kristen Stewart, Catherine Keener, Michael Wincott
Screenplay: Art Linson, based on his book
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures