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What Just Happened?

The smart and riotously funny What Just Happened is a good movie about the making of a very bad movie.


In What Just Happened, director Barry Levinson does for Hollywood what he did for politics in Wag The Dog. Movies about the film industry rarely connect in a big way with anyone other than insiders (except maybe Robert Altman's brilliant The Player). But What Just Happened, based on producer Art Linson's book on the disastrous making of the Alec Baldwin/Anthony Hopkins 1997 flick The Edge, succeeds. It has been fictionalized into the story of a beleaguered producer, Ben (Robert DeNiro), whose new film Fiercely -- a grainy pretentious arty crime film, starring Sean Penn -- bombs at a preview. Ben must convince the nearly psychotic British director, Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) to re-cut his film in time for its Cannes Film Festival premiere or have it shelved completely by studio head Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener). He also has to worry about what his teenage daughter Zoe (Kristen Stewart) is up to, deal with his estranged wife (Robin Wright Penn), who he suspects is having an affair with a screenwriter (Stanley Tucci), and try to convince spoiled brat star Bruce Willis (played by himself) to shave off his Grizzly Adams beard before production begins on Ben's next film. Who ever said life for a Hollywood producer was glamorous?


To put it succinctly, this represents DeNiro's best screen work in years. He is at ease and entirely comfortable as a weary producer who deals with nut jobs on a daily basis, yet tries to get something on the screen that he can be proud of. It's an effort that is often at odds with the realities of the way Hollywood works. Perhaps it helps that the real producer, Art Linson, wrote the screenplay and produces this film as well. Keener deftly plays the bottom-line minded studio head, who threatens to shut everything down unless the maniacal director re-cuts the film to let a murdered dog live. Funniest scene in the film is a meeting in her office as his director throws a tortured hissy fit at the prospect of touching his sacred work at all. In the role of the crazy helmer, Wincott steals the show. Looking like Keith Richards and playing the diva artiste to the hilt, Wincott is downright hilarious. Brilliantly skewering themselves in extended cameos are Penn and Willis as demanding stars. Type casting? John Turturro shows up in an amusing bit as a thoroughly wimpy agent. Robin Wright Penn and Kristen Stewart give DeNiro's character a much needed personal side and mainly play it straight.


Barry Levinson, who directed such hits as Bugsy and his Oscar-winning Rain Man, knows the trials and tribulations of the film industry well and hasn't had a big box office hit himself in over 15 years. Here he seems to get the mercurial nature of the business and is back in top form satirizing Hollywood in what can confidently be labeled the adult comedy surprise of the year. It's surprising because movies about making movies rarely get the green light anymore and in fact, the behind-the-scenes story of the (non) selling of What Just Happened at this year's Sundance is an ironic illustration of the pitfalls of modern filmmaking. After re-cutting the film for Cannes (in a case of life imitating art), the director has created a fast-moving, often hysterically funny little gem about the business called show. In doing that he also provides DeNiro with a role worthy of his legend. No small feat these days.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.