by Mel Valentin
"What Just Happened," the latest film from filmmaker Barry Levinson ("Liberty Heights," "Wag the Dog," "Bugsy", "Avalon," "Rain Man," "Good Morning Vietnam," "Tin Men," "Young Sherlock Holmes," "The Natural," "Diner"), is a Hollywood-centered satire loosely based on Art Linson’s memoir of the same name (Linson wrote the screenplay). Mixing uneven humor with insightful commentary about the business-first, art-a-distant-second Hollywood, "What Just Happened" is unlikely to interest all but diehard cineastes (or, to use a more accessible description, movie buffs), but for moviegoers willing to give "What Just Happened" a chance, they won’t be disappointed (as long as they keep expectations in check).What Just Happened focuses on Ben (Robert De Niro), a longtime Hollywood producer facing professional and personal crises over a two-week period. Professionally, Ben’s reputation, not to mention millions of dollars, hang on his latest film, “Fiercely,” a pretentious dramatic thriller starring Sean Penn (Sean Penn) directed by a self-indulgent, self-absorbed, drug- and alcohol addicted British director, Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott). After a test screening goes badly due, in large part, to Brunell’s decision to show the brutal murder of a dog in the final scene, the studio chief financing “Fiercely,” Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener), gives Ben an ultimatum: change (and soften) the ending or she’ll pull “Fiercely” from the upcoming Cannes Film Festival. Ben must convince the bitter, recalcitrant Brunell to change “Fiercely” and, in turn, salvage his business relationship with Lou.
"Uneven, sporadically entertaining Hollywood satire."
Ben faces a similar crisis on another project: a bearded, paunchy Bruce Willis (Bruce Willis) refuses to shave his beard for the film. The studio makes Ben an ultimatum: either Bruce’s beard goes or they shut down production, leaving everyone, including Ben, without a paycheck. Bruce’s fear-driven agent, Dick Bell (John Turturro), does nothing to convince Bruce to give in to the studio’s demands. Ben’s personal life isn’t any better. A screenwriter, Scott Solomon (Stanley Tucci), hoping to convince Ben to support his work is sleeping with Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), Ben’s ex-wife (who Ben still pines for). Ben’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Zoe (Kristen Stewart), seems to have grown up faster than he expected. Meanwhile, the clock ticks down on both projects, with Ben’s professional future hanging in the balance.
What Just Happened may not fare well in comparison to other Hollywood satires (e.g., The Player, Sunset Boulevard), but Levinson and Linson skewer everyone from the desperate producers caught between pleasing egotistical talent and the bottom-dollar oriented studio chiefs to those stars, directors, studio chiefs, as well as the writers, agents, wives, and hangers-on that make up the Hollywood food pyramid. While the humor comes sporadically and, to be honest, the satire is far from subtle (and more often than not, obvious), Levinson and Linson make sure to keep What Just Happened moving briskly. It helps that Ben faces twin deadlines on two unrelated projects. Without that, the dramatic and emotional stakes would be of lesser importance, not that, in the grand scheme of things, they’re all that important to begin with."What Just Happened" is probably best enjoyed as a character study of a Hollywood producer facing the downside of his career. Ben’s loss of status and power are symbolized by his placement in a "Vanity Fair" cover photo of Hollywood producers. He’s relegated to the left, outside corner, almost out of frame, an almost perfect visual of his fading career. Not that Ben, like Art Linson, or any other Hollywood producer for that matter, will go quietly into the good night. "What Just Happened" unfolds as a series of connected and unconnected events, some advancing Ben’s interests, most forcing Ben into retreat and to the unwanted recognition that a bleak future awaits: becoming a has been/persona non grata in Hollywood.
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originally posted: 10/17/08 02:46:56