A winningly sharp comedy about two nail-biting, back-stabbing, roller-coaster weeks in the world of a middle-aged Hollywood producer.
Somebody once dubbed Hollywood "the Dream Factory"; What Just Happened
aims to make sad, occasionally zany comedy of the proposition that unreality is the keynote of Hollywood as place, process, and lifestyle. Art Linson wrote it, and as producer of The Untouchables
, Fight Club
, Fast Times at Ridgemont High
, et numerous al., he must know the territory. Trouble is, after Robert Altman's way-superior The Player
(1992), several seasons of Entourage
, and wraparound entertainment coverage on cable TV and the Internet, most of What Just Happened
feels secondhand and superfluous. Robert De Niro gives a low-key comic performance as Ben, a seasoned producer being relegated to the edge of Tinseltown's Big Picture. The test screening of his latest movie was a disaster because his arty Cockney director (Michael Wincott, savoring a rare comic opportunity) insists on killing off not only hero Sean Penn but also, unforgivably, his dog. And Ben's next movie may not get made at all because Bruce Willis is adamant about playing his part with an outlandish beard the studio won't stand for. Meanwhile, our beleaguered protagonist is living in a soulless plastic-and-chrome apartment while supporting two ex-wives in their respective Houses Beautiful. The second wife (Robin Wright Penn) has lined up a divorce counselor to help them get on with their separate lives, even as Ben yearns for reconciliation.
What Just Happened re-teams De Niro with director Barry Levinson eleven years after Wag the Dog (1997), their surreal black comedy about Hollywood and Washington, different kinds of dream factory, collaborating on a politically expedient fiction and an unnecessary war. Nothing comparable is at stake here--though at one point studio boss Catherine Keener does evoke memories of President Lyndon Johnson issuing directives while perched on the commode. There are funny bits and deft touches from such redoubtable troupers as John Turturro--playing an agent terrified of talking to his clients--and Stanley Tucci, as a screenwriter who may be moving in on that wife Ben hopes to win back. However, Levinson's direction is so lackadaisical, there's barely a moment that doesn't nudge the whole enterprise toward the direct-to-video bin. --Richard T. Jameson