What Just Happened ***
Directed by Barry Levinson
Written by Art Linson, based on his memoirs
Robert De Niro as Ben
Bruce Willis as Himself
Stanley Tucci as Scott Solomon
John Turturro as Dick Bell
Kristen Stewart as Zoe
Catherine Keener as Lou Tarnow
Sean Penn as Himself
Michael Wincott as Jeremy Brunell
Robin Wright Penn as Kelly
Rated R for language, some violent images, sexual content and some drug material.
"What Just Happened" is certainly not a film that everyone will get enjoyment out of, and definitely not one to simply see because of the A-list cast on the marquee. And there is clearly an A-list cast here, as the film sports Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, and several others, some playing fictional characters, some playing themselves, and some playing fictional characters that could probably even be versions of themselves, becoming a completely satirical look at Hollywood and the producing profession. Of course, to enjoy some that is mainly satire, it helps to have more than a passing interest in the industry, and this is where the audience divide for the film comes into play. Those that know a bit about Hollywood and the movies will definitely find something to laugh at, or even to find entertaining. And those that don't will probably be asking themselves, and whoever they are with, what just happened on the screen.
Robert De Niro probably gives his best performance in several years, after a few questionable projects, as Ben, a Hollywood producer who is at a photo shoot for Vanity Fair as one of the Top 30 Most Influential Producers in the Business. The film begins with a short speech narrated by Ben about the placements of the subjects during the photoshoot, and how a little thing like where someone stands is more important that it sounds. Flashing back two weeks, we follow Ben as he goes through several difficult obstacles as he tries to advance his career. While at a screening for a new film he is producing with Sean Penn, the audience becomes disgusted at the end which features bloody shootout, the death of Sean Penn's character, and then a culmination of a dog being shot in the head, dying alongside his master. This catches the attention of Lou Tarnow, the had of the studio, who wants the ending changed or the film will be pulled from its Cannes Festival premiere. This hurts the director of the film, who sobered up for nearly a year to produce it, Jeremy Brunell. In addition to this crisis, Ben has to deal with another film he is producing with Bruce Willis, who has gained weight and refuses to shave off a burly beard that he spent six months growing. And in his personal life, he is dealing with two ex-wives, one of which he still has feelings for and he suspects is dating his friend and neighbor, Scott, and a teenage daughter that may have ties to a famous agent who recently killed himself.
There is certainly quite a bit going on in this film, but it moves at such a relaxed speed that it drifts from plot to plot and back with ease. At the center is De Niro, who is literally in every scene, and its his performance that is clearly the foundation for the films success. The character of Ben is very selfish, always thinking of himself instead of others, constantly putting him in trouble. The most pure character in this entire piece is probably his ex-wife Kelly, played by Robin Wright Penn, who has to deal with his constant cell phone calls during their intimate talks, and his rescheduling of dinners with her to go to "important" meetings. There is a rather beautiful moment between De Niro and Penn in an elevator, where his cell phone rings on the way down and he refuses to answer it, despite the fact that the two of them are not uttering a word. De Niro plays Ben with a certain amount of compassion, to the point where we know that Ben is not a likeable person, but at the same time this is more of a realistic flaw than a reason to hate him. In fact, al the characters have their share of being unlikeable and selfish-Ben by trying to advance his career, the director for not wanting to cut his work, Penn and Wilis for wanting the films to go their way, the studios for doing everything they can to not anger their actors. But in the end, its all business.
In addition to being De Niro's best work in a while, it is also a minor return for Barry Levinson, who is still not reaching his late 80's brilliance, but this is leagues ahead of his previous films, the awful "Envy" or even "Man of the Year." There is a sense of actual fun being had behind the camera here, and not a sense of obligation that made his two previous films a burden, despite both of them featuring funny people like Jack Black or Robin Williams. And there is a playfulness in nearly all the performances, including Bruce Willis and Sean Penn who both feature themselves. I loved how scared the studio executives are of making Willis and Penn angry, and they treat both of them with a cautious attitude as if they are about to snap at any second, and in the case of Willis I would certainly believe it. Aside from De Niro, the best work comes from character actor Michael Wincott, who I've seen in a small handful of films in the past, but never like this. As the sometimes drugged out director of the film within a film, Wincott plays the perfect prentious and anti-Hollywood type. Most of the best lines either come from him, or are a direct result of a conversation with him. The film weaves in and out of subplots, actors, and characters are such a terrific pace that I was constantly entertained by what was happening on the screen, and it just seemed to fly by.
That being said, there is probably a core demographic who would find the film as entertaining as I did. By knowing a certain amount of the way Hollywood works, I found something to relate to, and the film talk and movie references some of the characters give were almost an inside joke I was clued into. It is easy to see how some of the humor can go directly over the heads of some audiences, especially those that walk into the film because of the cast. But even if that is the case, it seems impossible not to get something out of the De Niro performances, which is so entertaining and watchable, and even multi-layered considering the selfish character that he is playing. "What Just Happened" is a fun and entertaining satire on Hollywood, perhaps not as groundbreaking or biting as Altman's "The Player," but still a passing way to spend time. It's a shame its out at the same time as several other better award contenders, and its easy for it to get lost in the shuffle, but its well-worth soughting out in some shape or form.