In What Just Happened Hollywood turns the camera on itself, exposing the day-to-day life of a once hot producer on the verge of a career meltdown. Robert De Niro stars as a movie mover-and-shaker plagued by bad test screening reports, a superstar actor who refuses to shave off a silly Santa-esque beard and low ranking placement on Vanity Fair’s Hollywood Power list. It’s a peek behind the curtain that reveals the dark—and often ridiculous—inner workings of the movie business.
Ben (De Niro) is having a rough two weeks. A test screening for his latest film, a thriller starring Sean Penn, didn’t go well and now the studio is demanding a recut version with a different ending. Bruce Willis’s facial hair is jeopardizing his next production and his ex-wife is involved with a new man. To weather these storms he must use all his skills as a negotiator, father figure, hand holder, problem solver and politician or see himself become yesterday’s news, replaced by someone younger and hungrier.
Despite the film’s catchy advertising tagline, “In Hollywood, everybody can hear you scream,” What Just Happened isn’t a particularly scary look at the business. Based on a memoir by real-life producer Art Linson—whose credits include The Untouchables, Heat, Casualties of War, Fight Club and Into the Wild—it is almost affectionate in its dissection of Hollywood’s foibles. The film’s broad strokes are obvious—stars can be temperamental, directors are self-indulgent brats—but when the director Barry Levinson gets down to brass tacks, as he does in a scene where a studio head (Catherine Keener) coldly orders Ben’s assistant out of a meeting, he more accurately portrays the harsh realities of what life with the Hollywood sharks is really like.
If the film contained more scenes like that What Just Happened might have been able to raise its temperature from tepid to a rapid boil, but unfortunately settles for Hollywood stereotypes and warmed-over industry in jokes.
What Just Happened is aided by an all star cast headlined by De Niro who hands in nice understated work, Stanley Tucci as a slick screenwriter, John Turturro as a neurotic agent and Bruce Willis and Sean Penn who both lampoon their Tinsel Town bad-boy images. It’s fun to see Willis trash a dressing room or Penn nod knowingly when his director commits career suicide at the Cannes Film Festival but even these fourth-wall piercing cameos aren’t as funny or satiric as they should be.
What Just Happened claims to be an insider’s view of what veteran director Norman Jewison called “this terrible business” but lacks any real insight.
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