“What Just Happened”
At the State Theater
2.5 out of 5 Stars
While HBO’s “Entourage” often glamorizes a Hollywood lifestyle revolving around blithe stars and glib agents, Barry Levinson’s (“Wag the Dog”) most recent film, “What Just Happened,” depicts the exact opposite. Based on the memoirs of producer Art Linson (“Into the Wild”), the film is a composite account of Linson’s experiences marching on Tinseltown’s front line. Rather than focusing on a pretty-boy actor like Vincent Chase, “What Just Happened” centers on old and tired Ben (Robert DeNiro), a fading power-producer in an industry where the word “comeback” isn’t in the vocabulary.
With a long track record of near-misses and complete bombs, Ben is in desperate need of a hit. The film opens on a test screening of one of his movies, a Sean Penn movie called “Fiercely,” during which Ben anxiously registers the distaste and boredom on the audience’s faces. In the climactic scene of Ben’s film, a group of gangsters shoot a dog in the head, splattering blood all over the camera. Many of the feedback cards bear shockingly frank criticism, the likes of which can’t be printed in this publication. When he confers with the passively scheming studio head, Lou (Catherine Keener, “The 40 Year Old Virgin”), she congratulates and reassures him, saying it’s tough to make a movie but it looks “good.” Translation: Ben is in deep shit.
On top of that, Ben has three kids with two different ex-wives. Waking up early to an espresso-Red Bull cocktail, Ben hurries to ex-wife number two’s house to pick up his kids and take them to school. This seems like a noteworthy narrative flaw: Such a gesture may just be too human to be plausible in a town like Hollywood. But then a lot of things would surprise you about life in Ben’s Gucci loafers.
In addition to issues with “Fiercely” and problems at home, another one of Ben’s movies, this one starring Bruce Willis, begins shooting in mere days. Willis, however, looks like Brando in “Apocalypse Now” with a Grizzly Adams-style beard. Willis refuses to shave, claiming it would be an insult to his artistic integrity. Another studio head threatens to shut the movie down and sue Ben for misrepresentation if Willis doesn’t show up for shooting “looking like a leading man.” He is, after all, the main lure for their target demographic: “pussy.”
Spinning half-truths, greasing the right wheels and trying to keep from falling over the edge — with which he flirts dangerously — is Ben’s life in a nutshell. “What Just Happened” is a discerning film from an accomplished director and a great actor, but it raises some questions that are a bit more interesting than the film itself.
For instance, who exactly was this movie made for? While “What Just Happened” was independently financed, surely someone must have asked about things like “target audience,” “marketability” and “projected returns.” Having failed to sell to a distributor at both Sundance last January and Cannes in May, there were clear signs that studios didn’t believe they could sell a movie about the movies to the general public. Or maybe they balked at the chance, feeling it was a bit too close to home, and a bit too disparaging. While “Entourage” appeals to a long-standing obsession with celebrity lifestyle, “What Just Happened” is apparently a bit too authentic for the fly-over states to handle. With a price tag of $25 million, “What Just Happened” has grossed about $1 million after four weeks in theaters.
There’s no question about it — the movie aptly conveys Levinson’s and Linson’s resentment of a relentlessly brutal industry. And for those who are interested in the industry side of movies, it’s engaging and insightful. But for those who aren’t interested in show business, this film isn’t much more than another easily ignored title on the marquee.