There is a scene in the Hollywood exposť What Just Happened where bad boy British director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) suddenly stops kicking and screaming about having to recut his fictional movie Fiercely and expresses calm and happiness in regards to the compromises he has made to please the studio. Taken aback by the sudden change of heart, his producer Ben (Robert De Niro) asks him what casued this transformation. Jeremy produces a bottle of mood stabilizers, and with a smile explains that three a day would put anyone in a state where they will remain chill even if their mother is being sexually assaulted. Of course, his choice of words is far more colorful, but you get the idea.
I am not sure how many pills were in Jeremy's prescription, but there were clearly enough to go around, because What Just Happened exhibits the kind of even keel that Jeremy's commercial endorsement promises (pharmaceutical product placement, anyone?). Directed by Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Rain Man) and adapted by experienced film producer Art Linson from his own book, the movie should have been a maniac tell-all serving the movie industry its just desserts. I love those kinds of movies. The Bad and the Beautiful, The Player, all of them. Even Robert De Niro has been down this road before in 1976's The Last Tycoon. When Hollywood send-ups work, they are excellent, brimming with a self-mocking hypocrisy that tears everyone else down while making the claim that everyone involved in this particular picture is somehow different. To pull it off requires a mean streak and a do-or-die energy that What Just Happened doesn't have.
The film follows De Niro's beleaguered producer over the course of a single week, with a tag-on from the Cannes Film Festival a week later. It starts on Monday night at a test screening for Fiercely, a bleak Sean Penn vehicle that tanks with the audience, largely from the director breaking the cardinal rule and killing a dog onscreen. The week ends for Ben on Friday when a conflict regarding Bruce Willis and a Grizzly Adams beard is finally resolved. (Both Penn and Willis play themselves, though Willis is filling in for Alec Baldwin, who allegedly engaged in similar behavior when Linson was producing David Mamet's The Edge.) In between, Ben must deal with his two ex-wives--including his most recent spouse (Robin Wright Penn), who is now dating a Droopy-dog screenwriter (Stanley Tucci)--and his eldest daughter's emotional problems. It turns out the teenaged girl (Kristen Stewart) may have a taste for older men with dark personalities. Amidst this, Ben must also navigate between investors, studio execs, and Bruce Willis' gutless agent (John Turturro).
Ben is based on Art Linson himself, a successful producer with longstanding relationships with big directors like Michael Mann, Brian De Palma, Warren Beatty, and David Mamet. He produced Sean Penn's Into the Wild and helped make the cultural phenomenon that is Fight Club. His books are full of tales of bad behavior, excess, and brushes with both failure and success. They have been praised for being both self-effacing while wielding a scathing wit and maintaining honesty in the face of absurdity. For the movie version of What Just Happened (the book also had the subtitle "Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Frontline"), the names have been changed to stave off the lawyers of the not-so-innocent, and I guess with that first compromise, everything else came tumbling after.
What Just Happened is composed largely of a series of phone calls and meetings, De Niro driving from one crisis to another while handling a third over the Bluetooth earpiece perpetually plugged into his ear. The veteran actor gives a low-key performance, playing Ben as a tired guy dancing as fast as he can to stay ahead of the Reaper. It's a solid acting performance, but a poor choice for the type of character to hang the movie on. For this satire to work, we have to find Ben as either slightly more sane than the rest of them or slightly more crazy; instead, Levinson has De Niro schlump his way through everything, never pulling off any impressive act of derring-do, never even displaying those impressive negotiation skills he keeps telling us about. Bruce Willis has a scene where he gets to rant and rave and throw things around the room, but De Niro just watches and waits for his moment to speak. Satire loses its edge when the main character is so pitiable.
When Robert Altman made The Player, he forced Hollywood to accept his defiance by showing off a filmmaking skill that made it impossible for anyone to dismiss what he was doing. Levinson, on the other hand, seems to go out of his way to not show off. Maybe he's trying to teach his fellow filmmakers a lesson in restraint and show them the virtues of staying calm and shooting everything in as straight a fashion as possible, but it makes What Just Happened boring to watch. I almost found myself longing for more of the corny fake scenes from Fiercely, because at least in those the camera moves. If nothing else, Levinson could have done something, anything, to imbue the picture with a sense of urgency. De Niro's character might have several deadlines he's trying to beat, but everyone goes about their business as if they have all the time in the world.
There seems to be a couple of lessons here, though not the ones Linson and Levinson intended. For one, if you're going to call your movie What Just Happened (some sources even tack a question mark on the end), make sure a lot happens in order to avoid critics answering, "Not very much." Also, you're setting everyone up to ask the same question of you, as in, "What the hell happened to your movie?" There is little ado about nothing in this picture, and though it has its "inside baseball" moments where Hollywood aficionados should get some pleasure out of seeing certain segments of the business skewered, there isn't enough of that to make a complete film. Perhaps for Art Linson's next book, he can give us the real scoop of how it went wrong this time. Or maybe a spirited author's commentary will cause this flick to finally sparkle when it hits DVD.