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3 reviews, 3 user ratings

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What Just Happened?
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Night Scented Stock"
3 stars

Whenever someone gets it into their head to make a movie about the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the entertainment industry, there are suggestions from critics and observers that such films may be too “inside baseball” to succeed--the worry being that all of the details and in-jokes might go over the heads of moviegoers who are convinced that the term “best boy” refers to the store where they bought the widescreen plasma TV with which to watch their full-screen DVDs. That might have been true once upon a time (although I don’t seem to recall such things getting in the way of people enjoying the likes of “Singin’ In the Rain”) but between films like “This is Spinal Tap” and “The Player,” TV shows like “Entourage,” “30 Rock” and the various infotainment programs, magazines like “Entertainment Weekly” and feature-packed DVDs that take you through every moment of the production process, it seems as if any ordinary person now possesses enough of a working knowledge of the inner workings to get all but the most obscure references. (Hell, many of them could probably produce better product than most of the people currently employed in Tinseltown, but that is another story entirely.) The problem with Barry Levinson’s “What Just Happened?,” the screen adaptation of producer Art Linson’s warts-and-all book of crazy stories surrounding the production histories of some of his own projects, is that just never attains the taint of authenticity that might have made this project work--all the weirdness seems to have been stamped out and the result is a film that never seems as smart or knowledgeable as it pretends to be. Forget inside baseball, this film comes across more like inside whiffleball than anything else--a simulacrum that looks sort of like the real thing but which never runs the risk of hitting as hard as the real thing.

Robert De Niro, who has appeared in numerous Linson productions over the years (most notably as Al Capone in “The Untouchables), stars as Ben, a Linsonesque producer who has pretty much sacrificed his entire personal life for the glories of his professional career. Unfortunately for him, those glories are a little further in the past than he would like them to be and during the two weeks covered in the story, he desperately tries to salvage two hugely important projects that are on the verge of imploding. The first is “Fiercely,” an expensive dramatic thriller starring Sean Penn that is due to premiere as the opening night selection at the Cannes Film Festival. However, when a focus group violently rebels against the downbeat finale--in which both Penn and, more upsettingly to the viewers, his pet dog are brutally gunned down--studio chief Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener) demands a number of changes (beginning with the resurrection of the pooch) and if the director, British auteur Jeremy Brunel (Michael Wincott) doesn’t make them immediately, she will pull the film from Cannes. Naturally, the aggrieved artiste refuses to change a thing, despite not having final cut in his contract, and appeals to Ben to stick up for the profound piece of art that they have created. That might sound good in theory but Ben knows that if he or Jeremy ever want to work in Hollywood again, those changes have to be made.

At least Ben can console himself with the knowledge that this particular dispute has its roots in the artistic process, which is more than can be said for the other fire that he finds himself trying to put out. He has a big-budget action film that is about to start production for which he has paid Bruce Willis (who, like Penn, plays himself) an enormous amount of money to star in. However, when Willis arrives for wardrobe fittings, he is now sporting a beard--not a hipster goatee but a mangy one of the type rarely seen outside of ZZ Top videos or cough drop packages. Because it is completely inappropriate for the part--for any part outside of the role of an elder in a remake of “Witness,” the studio orders him to shave it off but Willis refuses to do so. The studio is so adamant about its position that they inform Ben that if he cannot get Willis to shave by the first day of principal photography, the film will be shut down with lawsuits to follow. When Ben can’t convince Willis that his refusal to shave is putting the jobs of hundreds of people at risk, he appeals to Willis’ agent (John Turturro) to make his client see reason--a nice idea, except for the fact that the agent is so afraid of the possibility of losing his biggest client that just the thought of standing up to him is enough to trigger a nasty stomach disorder.

Fun fact--even though it seems to be the more implausible of the two stories, it is this one that actually follows one of the real stories told in Linson’s book--in that one, the film was the David Mamet bear movie “The Edge” and the recalcitrant actor was Alec Baldwin. (If you want to know how that one turned out, go rent “The Edge” and find out for yourself.) And because it has that tinge of reality to it, this particular subplot winds up being the most entertaining aspect of “What Just Happened?”--while I could have lived without Turturro’s stomach disorders, Willis more than makes up for it with a hilarious self-parody of spoiled actors who make ridiculous demands for no other reason than the fact that they know they can get away with it because no one dares to challenge them. By comparison, the stuff involving the touchy auteur is the kind of thing that we have seen many times before (although Wincott’s performance, seeming inspired by equal parts Abel Ferrara and Keith Richards, is definitely a hoot. The screenplay (written by Linson) also makes the mistake of mixing in elements of Ben’s personal life--specifically his attempts to win back his second ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) and his relationship with his eldest daughter (Kristen Stewart) which jibe uneasily with the other stuff.

As a director, Barry Levinson is one of the most erratic talents working today--his films have ranged in quality from masterpieces like “Diner,” “Tin Men” and “Wag the Dog” to solid entertainments like “Good Morning Vietnam” and “Bugsy” to noble failures like “Toys” (a bad film, indeed, but one so odd and visually extravagant that I can’t help but have a certain fondness for it) to blandness like “The Natural” and “Bandits” to what-the-hell-was-he-thinking disasters like “”Sphere,” “Envy” and “Man of the Year.” With “What Just Happened?,” he lands somewhere between solid entertainment and blandness. On the positive side, there are a number of funny individual moments (the best probably being Willis’ hilarious eulogy at the funeral of an agent and some of the audience response cards after the screening of the dead-dog version of “Fiercely”), a couple of smart lines here and there (in trying to explain the importance of recutting “Fiercely” to the director, Ben points out that “We already got the money--now we have to get the money back”) and a lead performance from Robert De Niro that just may be the single most focused and nuanced turn that he has given in a film since his back-to-back work in “Wag the Dog” and “Jackie Brown.” The trouble is that neither Levinson nor Linson really seem as if they have anything in particular to say about the behavior they are depicting, outside of the usual stuff about how wacky creative types can be, and they never figure out a way of pulling the various elements together into a whole. One of the final shots of the movie finds Ben stranded in Cannes with nowhere to go and no way of getting there and the film itself feels just as adrift as he is.

Although unsuccessful screenings at Sundance and Cannes (irony of ironies) has caused some to suggest that “What Just Happened?” is a complete disaster, it isn’t that bad--as I said, it has some bright spots and it is never hit’s the depths that we know that Levinson is capable of--but it just isn’t that good. In fact, if it had been made before the time when industry gossip became known to everyone, it might have squeaked by as a passable entertainment and it still might work for those who have managed to insulate themselves from such nonsense. Here’s a test. If you thought nothing of the idea of getting “Fiercely” ready so it could be the Opening Night film at Cannes, you might find enough entertainment value in the proceedings to make it worth watching. If, however, you found yourself wondering why Ben was even bothering since the Opening Night slot at Cannes tends to wind up going to a movie that isn’t that good (case in point--this year’s selection was “Blindness”)--well, that might mean that you are a little too advanced for it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16932&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/17/08 00:10:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/30/09 Samantha Pruitt not as good as i thought it would be, too many "in" jokes that fly over your head 3 stars
10/17/08 tiffany pettey good story but to boring for my liking 3 stars
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  DVD: 24-Feb-2009


  DVD: 24-Feb-2009

Directed by
  Barry Levinson

Written by
  Art Linson

  Robert DeNiro
  Bruce Willis
  Sean Penn
  Catherine Keener
  Stanley Tucci
  John Turturro

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