What Just Happened?
No matter what way you earn a living there is always times when you feel like poking a little fun at it. Some may call it ‘biting the hand that feeds you’ but it is natural to use your understanding of you job as fodder for jokes. If you happen to work in the film industry there is a perfect outlet for this need to parody your work environment. This has become such a popular plot device that it has become its own sub genre of movies. The films of this type usually are filled with inside jokes that are best appreciated by those within the industry but in order to work as a generally acceptable flick it has to address what the public thinks goes on behind the scenes in a Hollywood studio. The latest film to take on this balancing act is ‘What Just Happened’. On paper it has everything required for a hit film including A List stars and a director with a well proven track record. Unfortunately this is a case where the elements just don’t gel properly and the movie falls short of reaching its potential. It doesn’t appear to be the fault of anyone in particular this case is more like a chef trying a variation of a well respected recipe using ingredients that do well in most dishes but the result is good but not as great as hoped. With this noted it has to be mentioned that the movie is not bad, if fact there is a lot of entertainment value to be had watching it. The thing is there is just a nagging feeling that it could have been one of the great movies of this genre. Even the best batter in baseball hits a triple instead of a home run once in a while and this seems to be what just happened here. The film didn’t do well enough in the theatrical release to recoup the $25 million production cost but not that it is on DVD and Blu-ray it might just hit its audience with hard core film buffs. They are typically in the position of being outside the studio system but concerned with an insider’s look at the industry they love. There is a touch of irony present here since the distribution of the film is through Magnolia Home Entertainment. They have been at the fore of releasing small, independent movies of quality an in this case the topic is making fun of the big studio system. This is above the usual popcorn flick but it could have been a contender.
The script was written by Art Linson and it is based on his own novel ‘What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line’. It is usually a very good thing when the author of the book is called upon for the screenplay although the writer has to be able of retelling the same story in a completely different format. I have read the book and the screenplay is a true translation of the characters and situations of the novel but here is one of the reasons that the potential was lost. In a book there is more time to build the back stories of the characters and set up the required circumstances. With a film the time is severely limited and ancillary sub plots have to be sacrificed and the time line greatly compressed. As such some events that are organically grown in the written word come off as contrived on the screen. The script is snappy with a tongue in cheek type of humor that helps a lot to save the day. It is geared towards a satiric dramatic comedy but may have faired a lot better if the tact was more of a dark comedy. I am very sure that many of the situations are based on how things do happen in Hollywood but Linson plays a lot with the perception of the public of what goes on behind the scenes in order to make a movie.
Directing the movie was Barry Levinson who is a well known and respected member of the community that is the target of this piece. Some may be quick to point out that Levinson’s career as a director is uneven with a mixture of hits and misses behind him. To some degree this is true but only because he is an artist that is willing to take chances with his projects. A person who is willing to take risks because a venture is appealing is bound to have some that are less than fully successful. In the hit column for Levinson are such films as ‘Rain Man’, ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ and ‘Diner’ but these are balanced by movies that were met with less acclaim like ‘Sphere’ and ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’. Levinson did take on the industry that employs him in his better crafted opus ‘Wag the Dog’ which broadened the topic beyond the entertainment industry and including politics. Here Levinson takes the personal experiences of Linson as a producer and transforms it into a workable and overall fun ride through the strange world of Hollywood.
Ben (Robert De Niro) is a film producer and as the story here starts is watching a test screening of his current project, ‘Fiercely’. Unfortunately the audience was less than thrilled by it. The main problem was the ending where the star Sean Penn (playing himself) is graphically killed along with his faithful dog. There is a little unwritten rule in movies that you let the dog live. Just think back to ‘Impendence Day’ where all of New York City is killed but Boomer the dog escapes. Ben and the director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) try to make a case to the studio executives that the scene is necessary for the integrity of the film even though it would be box office poison. The main executive Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener) just wants to pull the movie from being presented in Cannes and hire an independent director to re-cut the movie. There is a touch of deception here on Ben’s part since the only reason he allowed Jeremy to include the death of the dog was to have a bargaining chip with the ratings as a distraction from the rest of the film’s violent content. This is a well known ploy with a lot of directors and producers to include outrageous scenes so when the remove them the MPAA may overlook the scenes that the wanted to include. As is usually the case for a Hollywood producer one film doesn’t provide enough problems to fill the day. For Ben he has to contend with his wife who is cheating on him with married screenwriter and Bruce Willis (playing himself) refuses to shave a horribly shaggy beard for an up coming film. Ben tries to have Willis’ agent intervene and gets the man fired instead.
The fundamental lesson of the film is in tinsel town you can’t trust anyone. Everybody has their own agenda and self protection is the ultimate job skill. The cast here is amazing with De Niro taking a more comical approach to the role that you are used to seeing him in. He is a consummate professional and brings his A game although at some point the line between comedy and drama is lost. Bruce Willis is great playing a prima Donna version of himself. In real life he helped to create the two tier pay structure for big stars taking much less to appear in an Indy film than a block buster. This has helped many an independent film maker attract well known talent. Willis portrays himself here as self centered showing that even when he plays himself he is acting. Overall this is a enjoyable movie and in most places works out well.