Any time you're watching a film that's satirizing the inner workings of Hollywood, you should be bound for an interesting time. The only thing left to discover is just how entertaining it's going to be. Films like The Player and The Big Picture show the inner workings with quite a level of frankness that filmgoers hadn't been previously exposed to. These films were more cynical about the process than anyone had seen before. When What Just Happened came along, based on the memoir by Hollywood producer Art Linson, the potential for spoofing what Linson had to tolerate could have been big. After all, this man, who's produced such films as Fast Times at Ridgmont High, The Untouchables and Heat, and has been around the business for a long time. He's acutely aware of his role in the relationship bridge between an artist who wishes to maintain principle and a studio looking for a box office smash. What's depressing is that having that knowledge and not sharing it with the cinematic world.
Linson wrote the screenplay that Barry Levinson (Rain Man) directs. The main mistake that Linson makes is creating this fictional universe where Robert De Niro (Wag the Dog) plays a Linson-esque character named Ben. Ben is juggling two ex-marriages; one where his oldest daughter Zoe (Kristen Stewart, Twilight) seems to have a life that Ben doesn't know about, and the other where his more recent ex Kelly (Robin Wright Penn, Beowulf) might be having an affair with a colleague from work. He tries to juggle these relationships as best he can, but honestly, Ben has more important issues than that. He's the producer of a Sean Penn-starring film, and at a test audience for the film, the end sequence (where Penn's dog is gruesomely killed) repulses the crowd, and they say so in the post-screening feedback cards. This is problematic for Ben because not only does the studio head (Catherine Kenner, Being John Malkovich) want the ending to be changed, but for the changes to be made before the film premieres at Cannes in two weeks. If that's not bad enough, a film that's about to begin production experiences trouble when its star Bruce Willis appears days before filming with the thickest of beards and a spare tire around his midsection. The studio wants the beard shaved, or they shut down the production and sue Ben. Just another fourteen days of Ben's crazy life.
Many of us who have seen a couple of movies in our lifetime have a preconceived notion about the studios being cold and calculating, negligent of the product and observant of the bottom line. The talent are the ones who must be coddled and treated with kid gloves. It's everyone in between that doesn't get shown, and De Niro's performance is one of nuance and messaging several sets of hands on the films that his character produces. He's forceful while being understated, and the work he turns in here is the best he's done in a decade (since Jackie Brown). He's indirect in his relationships, always looking for the next call or the next action, and forgets/is not aware of the cost it might impose on people. John Turturro (The Big Lebowski) appears as Willis' neurotic and seemingly spineless agent, and he delivers some of the best lines in the movie for the few scenes that he's in. The pair have seen better performances, but these are good ones.
Those two actors aren't even the saving grace of the film, because it doesn't have one. The film seems to take advantage of those viewers who are curious to see what the Hollywood cycle is like. Many scenes through the film seem to present themselves with the opportunity for Linson to blast away with both barrels, but it shies away from doing so. Of course, it's not the first time that a film is portrayed to be one thing and winds up being something completely different. But it's like if someone dangles a bottle of water in front of a man, and then takes it away from him at the last second to urinate in it. What Just Happened adequately sums up the reaction of anyone who might watch this film.
The Blu-ray Disc:
This is the first Blu-ray disc from Magnolia that I've seen, and I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. Technically, the 2.40:1 1080p high definition transfer of What Just Happened uses the AVC MPEG-4 codec. Cinematographer Stephane Fountaine (Talk To Me) shoots the film with handheld cameras, though it's not as gritty and erratic as films of a similar style. Background detail is readily apparent and some exteriors (during the cemetery notably) have a multidimensional feel to them. Blacks tend to be crushed at points during the film, and foreground detail is a little bereft, but overall this is a decent high definition presentation.
We get a DTS-HD Master Audio lossless 5.1 soundtrack to go with the Dolby Digital 5.1 option. Because it's a dialogue-driven comedy, there's nothing really worth demoing here. Dialogue pans when it needs to and is done smartly and without imbalance to the other channels. There's minimal use of the rear channels, and when it comes to subwoofer activity, mine stayed quiet during the feature. Overall it's serviceable without being mind-blowing.
Levinson and Linson team up for a commentary on the film. Frankly, this seemed to be a great opportunity for Linson to recount the stories from the battleground which later inspired his book and this film, but we get nothing. He's more interested in talking about what Levinson accomplished on a given scene or what De Niro did in a certain sequence. The obligatory raves on the cast are done by Linson and Levinson, but there's a lot of gaps of silence from the pair and overall, I was less than impressed by the track. Three deleted scenes (7:07) follow, one of which is an epilogue voiceover, and the other is a nice scene with Ben and Zoe, but their reasons for exclusion seem justified. "Behind the Scenes" (2:47) is a little misleading, because it's a guy with a camera, shooting Levinson and the actors before, during and after two scenes. With no interviews or anything, bo-ring. Casting footage featuring a dozen of the supporting actors is next (26:58). When the longest non-commentary piece is casting footage, you know you're going to see some bland supplements. "From Book to Screen" (23:47) is the real making-of look at the film, with interviews with De Niro, Levinson and Linson as the focus of the segment. Linson discusses his inspirations for writing another book, and De Niro talks about what attracted him to making a film on the book. They all talk about why the material is good, and Levinson covers his visual and editing style for the film in greater detail as well. It's decent but a hardly memorable interview segment. "No Animals Were Harmed In the Making of this Movie" (1:59) looks at the fake film inside the real film, with fake memories from the real dog. It's about as pointless as you'd expect. Trailers for Two Lovers, The Great Buck Howard and The Life Before Her Eyes complete things.
As it turns out, Linson still produces films to this day, his most recent notable work being the Penn's directorial effort Into the Wild. So I'm presuming that Linson still wants to work in Hollywood, which is why What Just Happened feels safe, boring, and not as funny as it could be. De Niro's performance is surprisingly good, but not even he can pull this out of the mundane. Technically it's fine, and from an extras point of view, could use some work, like the film itself. I'd suggest skipping this for more entertaining and biting fare.