What Just Happened is a real disappointment, a flaccid satire of the film industry that gums when it should bite and drags when it should zip. It is a collaboration of talented people who haven't done much work of note in recent years: Star/producer Robert DeNiro (remember when a DeNiro movie was worth getting excited about?), director Barry Levinson (who had an incredible streak of quality films in the 1980s and is now averaging about one good one per decade), and writer/producer Art Linson (Heat, The Edge, Fight Club), who penned the screenplay--his first--based on his memoirs from the Hollywood trenches.
To be fair, there is something of a voyeuristic kick in seeing a ground-level view of the Hollywood carnival. It may be too "inside baseball" for some tastes, but the industry hassles and conflicts that much of the film pivots on (test screenings, comment cards, agent negotiations, final cut) provide most of the interest and humor. Much of the film concerns a project that Ben, DeNiro's Linson surrogate, is shepherding through a bumpy post-production phase; the film's unstable director (the always welcome Michael Wincott) not only kills off the hero (a game Sean Penn, playing himself) but, in particularly gruesome fashion, the faithful dog. As intense negotiations with the studio head (Catherine Keener) ensue, we feel like we're peeking behind the curtain a bit; Linson (and Levinson and DeNiro) have certainly fought plenty of these sorts of battles before.
Ben's other pet project is a big-budget Bruce Willis vehicle, due to start shooting in mere days. The trouble is that Willis has shown up for his fittings vastly overweight and sporting a horrifying "Grizzly Adams" beard. Ben has been told, in so many words, that if the beard doesn't go, the picture is off and the studio's suing everybody (including Willis' hypochondriac agent, nicely played by John Turturro). Willis is clearly having a great time playing the overpaid, blowhard, pain in the ass movie star, but his scenes spotlight one of the film's central troubles--clever ideas, not terribly well executed.
As you're watching Willis scream and curse and throw costume racks around, you're smiling, sure... but you're not laughing all that much. As a general rule, What Just Happened is amusing, but not terribly funny, an issue present in Linson's screenplay and augmented by Levinson's somewhat clunky direction. Too often he lets the film run slack (it's a good 15 minutes too long) and lets too many scenes play in single, unbroken takes, which slows the pace considerably. As a result, the picture is lead-footed when it should be nimble, a screwball comedy in chamber drama's clothing.
Linson's script also makes the crucial mistake of assuming we're just as interested in his personal life as his professional one, with plenty of screen time devoted to his sexual conquests and his attempts to reunite with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn, doing her best with a slender role) as they're attending couples counseling. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but who cares about this rich dick's problems? This is the trouble with adapting your own autobiography; as Howard Korder once noted, "Just because it happened to you, doesn't mean it's interesting."
Some of the performances are sharp. Catherine Keener has done this role countless times before (most notably in S1mOne), but she does it better than anyone; Kristen Stewart doesn't get a lot of screen time, but she makes the most of what she gets. Stanley Tucci is underused but flat-out terrific; one wishes more of his slimy energy would have rubbed off on his co-star. DeNiro's deadpan interpretation works occasionally (he has a great telephone scene with his ex where he simply says "Please," over and over again), but he mostly sleepwalks through this role, as has become his unfortunate habit in recent years. His performance, like the movie around it, has its moments, but ultimately needs a shot of adrenaline.
Magnolia Home Entertainment's 2.40:1 anamorphic presentation is something of a mixed bag. The nighttime scenes look great, with textured nightscapes popping against the deep blacks of Los Angeles after dark. But the daytime scenes are less impressive--particularly some of the interiors, which are noticeably washed out. Perhaps this was an aesthetic choice that made it to the disc intact, but either way, it doesn't quite work.
The viewer is given the option of a 5.1 and 2.0 mix, though there isn't too much difference between them; we've got a dialogue-heavy comedy here, so the surround channels don't get much use. Said dialogue is distinct and clear, and the bass-heavy score and music cues (particularly a well-chosen Ennio Morricone track) help keep the track snappy.
Plenty of bonus features here, though few of them are worth really digging into. First we have an Audio Commentary with director Levinson and writer/producer Linson; it's good-natured and chatty, if a little heavy on the narration of on-screen events. The pair do tend to pat each other on the back a little much ("The way you use the phone, Barry... it's like another character in the movie"), and seem to run out of things to say fairly early, leading to some extended pauses in the track's second half.
Next up are three Deleted Scenes (7:06 total), and they give the impression that, like the Sean Penn film within it, What Just Happened had some trouble with its ending. We're shown a particularly flimsy wrap-up sequence, too heavy on the trite voice-over ("And as for me and Kelly..."); this was apparently replaced by the second half of the sequence that (fairly effectively) bookends the picture, in which Ben is part of a Vanity Fair photo spread of powerful producers. So the next deleted scene is the original, uncut version of that sequence, which makes for an interesting contrast with the final cut. A brief scene with Kristen Stewart rounds out this section.
"Behind The Scenes" (2:47) is a brief compilation of on-set footage, with no narration or complimentary interviews. It's a strange choice, especially when you get to "Making of What Just Happened: From Book To Script To Screen" (23:45), an excruciatingly long interview compilation. A word about making-of featurettes: I know that a lot of us who review DVDs complain about the now-boilerplate format of these extras--they're fluffy, they're heavy on promotion instead of insight, and they all look the same. But you don't really appreciate the fast-paced, clip/sound bite/behind-the-scenes-footage template until you watch a featurette like this one, which merely intercuts interviews with three talking heads (DeNiro, Linson, and Levinson) for 23 minutes, with no clips, outside footage, or even music to liven things up. It's dull as toast, and its glacial pace is done no favors by Mr. DeNiro, notorious as a great actor who gives a terrible interview.
"Casting Sessions" sounds like a lot of fun, but the problem is that the big stars we might want to see no longer have to audition. So instead, we're treated to twelve videotaped readings (ranging from one to six minutes each) by actors we've never heard of who play tiny roles (many of them lacking even proper names). No disrespect to hard-working day players, but will anyone who sees the movie long to watch the audition of the guy who played "First AD"? Dubious. "No Animals Were Harmed In The Making Of This Movie" (1:59) is the final extra; this faux-interview with the film's dog actor is an attempt to temper concerns over the animal violence with humor. It isn't funny, but it's over quickly.
Forgive the combative tone of this review; as I indicated at the beginning, it's not so much that What Just Happened is a bad film. It's just that it's such a letdown, considering the formidable talents involved (spotty though their recent filmographies may be). And there are scenes here that really play, in and of themselves. But taken as a whole, What Just Happened is a little bit limp, and mighty toothless compared to superior Hollywood satires like The Player, Tropic Thunder, or Levinson and DeNiro's previous collaboration, Wag The Dog. Rent It.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.