Posing for the cover of Vanity Fair‘s Power issue, veteran producer Ben (Robert De Niro) looks gloomy and distressed. Being named one of the 30 most powerful figures in the industry sounds good, he knows, but he also knows he’s in trouble. “Power,” Ben says as he’s being shuffled to the outer edge of the group portrait, “is everything in Hollywood: you either have it, want it, or are afraid of losing it.” Right about now, he’s straddling all three positions at the same time.
Ben’s efforts to keep control take up the bulk of What Just Happened, Barry Levinson’s adaptation of producer Art Linson’s book, subtitled Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line. Less an expose than a recap of what even casual observers of the industry know or intuit, Ben’s story relies on clichés even as he deplores them. Never without his cellphone, he makes his way around L.A. like he’s on a series of secret secret but simultaneously showy missions, calculating each meeting — time and place — in order to reap maximum benefit. He’s always cutting deals, massaging egos, finding compromises.
Even the few minutes he spends with his three children are set up as appointments, ever in flux: arriving at the home of his second ex, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), to take his son to school, he hears, “She says it’s okay for you to go in the house instead of using the cell phone.” Mm-hmm. And inside, Kelly speaks from the balcony overlooking the spacious foyer, informing him of her decision to re-cover the sofa-chair Ben now realizes that he cherishes the way it was. The metaphor is plain to everyone but Ben. His sudden passionate involvement in her redecorating inspires Kelly’s self-defense: “Let’s play the roles,” she sighs. “This session is called how to learn to live apart.”
Ben’s own desires change moment to moment, as does his ability to keep boundaries. Unable to sort out his resentment, guilt, and anger as he also strains to maintain his sense of “power,” he stops by his first ex-wife’s home to pick up 17-year-old daughter Zoe (Kristen Stewart), he notices Arriving to take her to school, he notices her eyes are red. “If it’s boy stuff,” he says earnestly, “You can ask me.” (Her mother, cutting roses in the driveway with a vengeance, growls, “Secrets seem to be the family hobby, must be in the DNA.”) Zoe doesn’t confide in her father, of course, though he presses and fidgets as she gets into his car, imagining he’s a different sort of father than she sees.
Ben has a similarly in accurate understanding of his work — in particular, how his associates see him. For his latest movie, a thriller starring Sean Penn and directed by edgy and expensive Brit artiste Jeremy (Michael Wincott), is in trouble, and so he’s called on to assuage hurt feelings and anxieties on all sides. While Jeremy has a vision (which includes killing a dog at film’s end, loudly and with much blood), studio exec Lou (Catherine Keener) is bothered by newly collected, furious audience reaction cards. With the film supposed to premiere at Cannes in a week and the opposing sides dug in, Ben takes what seems to be a direct approach: he puts Lou and Jeremy in a room together, watches sparks (and M&Ms) fly, then promises both they’ll get what they need. He puts the director in an editing bay, provides him with drugs (though Jeremy is, at least briefly, proudly sober), and sets off to tend to his next crisis, namely, Bruce Willis’ (playing himself) rumored new look.
Ben’s first line of intervention is through Willis’ miserably neurotic agent, Dick (John Turturro). Terrified to speak to Willis (and beset by an especially awful stomach ailment), Dick does his best to avoid direct encounters (“I’m scared of all of them!” he says of his clients). Even as Ben instructs Dick in the obligations of his profession, their community gathers to mourn (or pretend to mourn) the passing of another agent who has just killed himself. If his death is tragic, it is also predictable, granting his colleagues and faux friends the opportunity to perform their grief and moral upbraiding (Willis is a particularly gracious speaker at the ceremony), as well as make deals while walking from cars to gravesite.
What Just Happened is, in essence, about what doesn’t happen in Hollywood, about the incessant phone calls and willful lack of communication, the professions of love and loyalty that everyone knows are false yet still craves. It’s about cheating, depression, and survival. It’s about the roles that men and women play, hoping to fit in but also desperate to stand out, jealous and hapless and childish. Unsurprisingly cynical, the movie doesn’t offer insight so much as reconfirmation.