What Just Happened (2008) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, some violent images, sexual content, and some drug material
Running time: 104 min.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Robin Wright Penn, Michael Wincott, Bruce Willis, Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, Kristen Stewart, Sean Penn, Moon Bloodgood, Lily Rabe
Director: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Art Linson (from his book, "What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line")
What Just Happened is yet another middling Barry Levinson (Man of the Year, Bandits) satire, not terribly different from the style and tone of his other works, and in particular, somewhat covering similar ground to his look at entertainment industry agents in Jimmy Hollywood. It is based on the experiences chronicled in the book by Art Linson (who receives the screenplay credit), "What Just Happened? Bitter Tales from the Front Line."
Robert De Niro (Stardust, The Good Shepherd) stars as Ben, a divorced veteran Hollywood producer, who finds himself in the middle of a crunch now that his latest production, an esoteric thriller named, starring Sean Penn (The Interpreter -- he makes a small appearance as himself), has completely tanked with audiences at test screenings. While trying to get his visionary director (Wincott, The Assassination of Richard Nixon) to tone down some of the violence, as well as a bleak ending (which culminates with a graphic bullet to the head of a canine at point blank range), he has to deal with an ego problem with his new production, trying to get Bruce Willis (Planet Terror - also playing himself) to sign on, but Bruno refuses to shave the very shaggy beard he's been cultivating. Meanwhile, Ben is suffering from loneliness, still trying to get back together with his wife and children, but he can't stop putting his job first, exacerbating the rift.
Like many Levinson works, there is an intelligence and competence in the direction during the build up, and it does reel you in to the plight of the protagonist, sufficiently to provide enough entertainment to justify at least one sit through. However, Levinson also continues to throw in a plethora of side stories that do little more than distract from the thrust of the picture, and you may find yourself at the halfway point wondering just what the film is really supposed to be about.
A solid supporting cast, including terrific character actors Michael Wincott, Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada), Catherine Keener (Friends with Money) and John Turturro (Transformers), bolster the film from relying too much on De Niro, which is a blessing, considering that De Niro's Ben is often withdrawn and difficult to read. The appearances by Penn and Willis also provide some necessary spark during key moments as well.
Ultimately, What Just Happened doesn't encroach on much territory not already covered by Robert Altman's excellent 1992 film about a Hollywood producer, The Player, and as a result, it's only really recommended for fans of the stars, the director, or those interested in the insider look into Hollywood. For everyone else, you'll probably find yourself asking the question that makes up the film's title at the time the credits start to roll.
©2009 Vince Leo