Robert de Niro
Robin Wright Penn
Hollywood has produced some great pieces of unblinking self-examination in the past Lynch’s dark meditation on the dream factory’s underbelly Mulholland Drive, Woody Allen’s madcap Hollywood Ending or the brilliant satire Wag The Dog. Reuniting the director (Barry Levinson) and star (Robert De Niro) of the latter, What Just Happened? attempts to rekindle that film’s acerbic spark, delving into that most misunderstood role in the movie business, that of the producer.
The script was adapted by veteran producer Art Linson (Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Fight Club and more recently Into The Wild) from his 2002 memoir What Just Happened: Bitter Hollywood Tales From The Front Line, and compresses various anecdotes into a fictionalised fortnight in the life of fading middle-aged producer Ben (De Niro).
For Ben, life has become a frenetic juggling act between the conflicting pressures of work and family, leaving him with little time for either. A test-screening for his upcoming film Fiercely (starring Sean Penn, who appears in a couple of cameos as himself) has just bombed and steely-eyed studio executive Lou (Catherine Keener) has given him with the unpleasant task of convincing its drug-addled director Jeremy (played with obvious glee by Michael Wincott) to change its spectacularly violent (and hilarious) ending.
This is probably the film’s strongest strand, vividly dramatising the manner in which Hollywood functions, the ruthless pursuit of the almighty dollar trumping with absolute finality any artistic concerns. In a similar vein, Ben must contend with a bearded Bruce Willis (who has fun portraying himself as a petulant, semi-deranged man-child) refusing to shave, despite studio heavies threatening to sue him for breach of contract for not appearing sufficiently like a ‘leading man’.
Unfortunately, the rest of the material feels flat in comparison, the script becoming bogged down by seemingly trivial minutiae and flat dialogue. Sub-plots revolving around Ben’s personal life an ex-wife for whom he still harbours feelings (Robin Wright Penn) having started a relationship with his screenwriter friend Scott (Stanley Tucci) fail to compel, largely due to poor characterisation on the part of Linson.
The biggest problem however is that for a comedy, What Just Happened? isn’t that funny. While there are some amusing moments in the first half, things sag over a tedious middle chapter and never really pick up again. Unable to play upon his hard-man persona which saw such success in Meet The Parents, De Niro begins to flounder, listing towards tired bafflement at the (fairly tame) insanity playing out around him.
The direction doesn’t altogether help either, Levinson’s attempts to inject some life into proceedings with fast motion shots of Ben zooming along the freeway between meetings unable to compensate for the uncompelling writing. Having used up its few good gags and pieces of insight into the Hobbesian jungle of modern Hollywood, the film ends up dragging into a tedious farce. What Just Happened? More to the point, Why Should We Care?