Hollywood hates poking fun at itself. While it’s handled its fair share of good natured cinematic ribbing, once we get to the seething scalding takes like The Stunt Man or The Player, amiability turns instantly to animosity. Heck, even a comedy like Tropic Thunder seems overwhelmingly mean-spirited. Ex-members of the Tinsel Town elite are notorious for burning as many drug and debauchery induced bridges as possible, with examples like the late Julia Phillips’ tell-all tome You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again arguing both in favor of and totally against personal reserve. Now comes What Just Happened? , based on Art Linson’s memoir about his (mis)adventures as one of the industry’s leading producers. With Barry Levinson behind the lens and Robert DeNiro heading an all-star ensemble, what could go wrong? The answer - EVERYTHING!
Ben has big problems. The test screening of the film he produced starring Sean Penn was a disaster, and his latest movie won’t start shooting because its lead, Bruce Willis, has arrived on the set overweight, angry, and covered in a mountain man level of facial hair. While his boss, the no nonsense Lou Tarnow, wants these issues resolved pronto, Ben hasn’t the backbone to figure out how to fix them. Instead, he obsesses on his second wife, the beautiful if insecure Kelly, and worries about Zoe, his teenage daughter from his first marriage. In between, there are battles with hot tempered directors, egomaniacal actors, ineffectual agents like Dick Bell, and a friend/screenwriter who, when not pitching scripts to Ben, is possibly pitching woo to Kelly. It’s enough to drive a man to drink, or death. Ben, however, is barely driven to distraction.
What Just Happened? commits so many cardinal motion picture sins that it should be excommunicated from the entertainment arena on principle alone. It wastes the talents of several sensational performers, leaving actors like Willis, John Tuturro, and Stanley Tucci looking absolutely lost. It takes what should be a potent insider skewering and turns it into a pseudo-sudser where the character’s melodramatic meandering substitutes for La-La Land insights. It proves that, where once he was a mighty maverick of individual filmography, Barry Levinson is now back in tattered Toys mode - self-indulgent, lazy, and utterly lacking in artistic, creative, or commercial merit. And this after the one two bombardier-ing of Envy and Man of the Year. But perhaps the greatest abomination created by this 104 minute affront is that it is never, ever funny. Not when DeNiro does his sheepish schlep routine. Not when Willis goes bug-butt over his beard. Not when a Tarantino like filmmaker argues for the aesthetic integrity of a scene where criminals kill a dog in a full blown head shot.
It goes without saying that What Just Happened? is stiflingly bad. It has one redeeming element, and she - Catherine Keener as a no bullshit studio executive - is on and off screen so rapidly she barely has time to register. The rest of the time we are left with characters we care little about, problems that have no basis in the real world, and plot contrivances that push the very boundaries of the “based on a true story” paradigm. Linson may indeed be taking liberties here, going far too fictional to protect the innocent (or the regularly litigious). In the book, Alec Baldwin was the prima donna celeb, and Fight Club was one of the incredibly troubled productions. On screen, such authentic intrigue would have been a welcome internal connection. Let’s face it - viewers love gossip. But when turned make believe, the already larger than life facets go rogue. As a result, they reinvent the narrative into something like a fetid Aesop’s Fable, sans moral.
The cast, of course, is no help. They see this as their chance to bite the fiscally beneficial hand that constantly overfeeds them, and when they’re not chewing up the scenery, they’re mentally checking the zeroes on the end of their paycheck. Willis is especially weird, ranting and cursing during his hackneyed hissy fits like he forgot the cameras were rolling. He’s constantly threatening to break out into a ‘wink at the audience’ smirk. Similarly, Tuturro milks his cowardly yutz agent for less than 10% of his narrative worth. This is perhaps the worst performance he’s ever given - and no, we aren’t forgetting Transformers. Only Keener and Robin Wright Penn (as the iconic Kelly) save face, and it’s no thanks to Levinson. Directing in a manner that uncovers no pacing or comic timing, What Just Happened? winds up looking like a badly dubbed foreign film.
And then there’s big Bob. DeNiro has never been an easy fit within the comedic genre. Unless he’s playing with his own tripwire type (Meet the Parents), he comes off as a Shakespearean snob doing dinner theater. Here, he’s actually not bad, affecting a neurotic nebbish persona that could best be described as Woody Allen via Hell’s Kitchen. There are times when he is just a Paul Rudd impression away from being a total cliché, but he imbues Ben with enough dimension that we don’t instantly dislike him. No, it takes nearly an hour and one bathroom pick-up later to find our lead to be loathsome. Once Ben goes overboard into stalker mode, everything about What Just Happened? fizzles and flops. The ending seems anticlimactic and unimportant, the resolution offering the standard middle finger salute to audience attentiveness and consideration.
Frankly, something like this works better on the page, the brain free to recreate the scene where studio execs literally dodge some of the directorial choices made by David Fincher in Fight Club. We can do a much better job of watching the prose Linson lumbered across the Ethan Hawke version of Great Expectations than watching a English dope fiend argue why a dog has to get shot in the noggin. One might argue that What Just Happened? is too inside to connect with everyone. Only those who truly understand the business called show will snicker at Levinson’s labored satire. Everyone else should steer clear. Movies about the movies and those who make them usually don’t deliver in the way a typical mainstream effort would. What Just Happened? proves this point over and over again.