(Magnolia) Robert De Niro, Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci, Robin Wright Penn, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, John Turturro, Michael Wincott, Kristen Stewart. Directed by Barry Levinson
It is said that in space no-one can hear you scream. In Hollywood, not only can everyone hear you scream, chances are the rights to it are in turnaround.
Ben (De Niro), a veteran Hollywood producer, is at a photo shoot for a Vanity Fair feature on the 50 Most Powerful People in Hollywood and he is miffed at where he is placed on the set. In a town where perception is everything, he finds himself off to the side, away from the true power brokers. For a producer, the perception of powerlessness can make his job damn near impossible.
Ben’s latest project, a Sean Penn (played by himself) vehicle called Fiercely, is at a test screening attended by the hard-as-nails studio boss Lou Tarnow (Keener). The test scores are a disaster. Not only is the hero killed at the end of the film, so is his dog, brutally shot by generic Eurotrash hitmen. The movie is scheduled to open the Cannes Film Festival in less than two weeks and Ben is ordered to change the ending or else the vindictive Tarnow will bury the film, preventing its release in any form.
When the news is presented to the film’s manic English director Jeremy Brunell (Wincott), he has a meltdown, not wanting to compromise his artistic vision. Still, those problems pale in comparison to Ben’s next project, which is set to begin filming in ten days. It’s star, Bruce Willis, shows up to the set bloated, grossly overweight and even more terrifyingly, with a beard that would do Stonewall Jackson proud. The film’s backers are threatening to halt production and sue everyone, including Willis’ neurotic and hypochondriac agent (Turturro). To make matters worse, the film’s writer (Tucci) is having an affair with Ben’s ex-wife (Penn), who Ben wants to get back together with despite their attempts at “breakup therapy” which smacks of L.A. flightiness.
While Ben navigates a personal life that is nothing short of a minefield, his professional career is threatening to implode. And buddy, nothing is harder to come back from for a producer than the perception that he is ineffective.
Director Levinson also directed the satire Wag the Dog which skewered politics and Hollywood on the same spear, but this doesn’t have the bite that the other film possesses. The movie’s worst quality is its blandness, and that prevents the movie from being rated highly. What the film has going for it is that the cast is exceptional, led by De Niro who can make ordering a ham sandwich compelling. Willis and Wincott take the over-the-top route, which works out nicely. However, it also serves to illustrate the movie’s other glaring flaw – the characters feel more like caricatures than real people. It’s hard to get behind a movie when the characters in that movie are unbelievable.
There is a fascination with peeking behind-the-scenes in Hollywood. We all have visions of massive egos jousting for higher perches in the pecking order, and to a certain extent that’s true. There’s a certain vicarious thrill with watching rich power players grovel and from time to time get put in their places and that’s the attraction for What Just Happened. It’s unfortunate that a cast this talented and a director with the abilities of Levinson couldn’t have made a better movie, but even their lesser efforts are worth a look.
WHY RENT THIS: An insider’s look at Hollywood from a consummate Hollywood insider. An outstanding cast, led by the always watchable De Niro. Willis and Wincott in particular, give over-the-top performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie falters when covering Ben’s personal life. While some of the scenes are based on real-life incidents, the characters don’t feel reel. The satire is bland, the kiss of death for satire.
FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty salty and there are some scenes of violence, sexuality and drug use. Probably a bit rough for the younger sorts.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the book the movie is based on is non-fiction, the book’s author, producer Art Linson, chose to film it as a fictional work with fictional characters.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 6/10