Magnolia Pictures // 2008 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // February 24th, 2009
In Hollywood, everybody can hear you scream.
Robert DeNiro re-teams with Wag the Dog director Barry Levinson for another low-key comedy, this time to throw back the curtain on Hollywood.
Medicating an artsy director who's just been told he needs to cut the ending of his picture, getting into a screaming match with Bruce Willis, driving kids to school, attending the funeral of a popular agent, sweet talking a pair of Russian investors, and spying on an ex-wife are all in a day's work for successful Los Angeles producer Ben (DeNiro).
What Just Happened reveals what goes on way behind the scenes in the movie business.
What Just Happens opens on a Vanity Fair photo shoot for Hollywood's thirty most powerful producers, and Ben is trying to negotiate better positioning -- something closer to the "O" in the huge backdrop spelling out "POWER," since, he says, the guys there now aren't even really producers, they just put their names on movies. This first scene gives a great sense of the dry, somewhat "inside baseball" feel that Levinson's film maintains throughout. This is the All the President's Men of movies about making movies.
It's hard to go wrong with a cast like this: DeNiro, Sean Penn (Mystic River), John Turturro (Transformers), Catherine Keener (Into the Wild), and Bruce Willis (Sin City), to name a few. All involved clearly relish the opportunity to skewer their chosen profession, and one senses that a lot of these situations hit pretty close to home.
Dialogue is sharp, pacing is quick, and the story is smart. I loved watching Ben bluff his way out of impossible situations, navigating surreal waters with millions of dollars on the line, and it's not difficult to imagine this being the real life of a producer. His inability to let go of his second ex-wife is surprisingly touching: Ben is a man who is well aware of his flaws, and has chosen to accept rather than try to overcome them.
Yet, What Just Happened doesn't end up as a great picture, settling instead to be a good one. The problem is tone, and with this material, I'm not sure it could've been overcome. The book on which the movie is based, written by producer Art Linson, who also wrote the screenplay, is a very funny, insightful recounting of several jaw-dropping situations that came up while filming and releasing Fight Club, The Edge, Great Expectations, and Pushing Tin. The players are real, the movies are real, and Linson seems to pull few punches. His description of Alec Baldwin's refusal to shave his beard, and the ensuing crisis that nearly got Baldwin replaced and/or the movie shut down, is priceless. It's a must read for anyone interested in how the business truly works.
For the filmed version, though, everything has been fictionalized, and that seems to play against the fact that almost everything depicted really happened. The movie-within-a-movie around which much of What Just Happens revolves is a cheesy looking thriller starring Sean Penn and a dead dog, yet it's hard to tell if the filmmakers intended it to be absurd or just bad. Bruce Willis re-enacting the Baldwin beard incident is amusing, but seems flat compared to the description on the page, even though it's been drawn out and made "funnier." Laugh-out-loud moments are few and far between.
Despite the final product not being hilarious, Linson's script is sharp, Levinson's direction is predictably solid, and it's great to see Robert DeNiro play a cool character again. Driving from scene to scene in tinted glasses and a close-cropped beard, he is mesmerizing throughout the film's running time, giving an old-school DeNiro performance the likes of which we haven't seen in ten years. Ben is an urban shark, always moving, always making deals, keeping his true feelings to himself. DeNiro's acting is the most successful element of What Just Happened.
The DVD's video transfer is decent but not exceptional, with some compression artifacts, edge enhancement, and noise in dark areas, of which there are many. While nothing stands out as being particularly bad, I'm disappointed more care wasn't taken with the film transfer and DVD authoring. Audio is also lackluster, with little surround activity other than during musical cues, but at least the dialogue is intelligible and distortion-free.
There are plenty of special features on What Just Happened, most of which are of above-average quality. First off is a laidback audio commentary with Levinson and Linson, which repeats some of the information in other featurettes but is still worth a listen for movie buffs. The "making of" featurette, running about 22 minutes, is the best of the bunch: a series of calm interviews with the major players edited together without the usual obnoxious film clips bridging the clips. The deleted scenes are surprisingly good, and all of them could've been included in the final cut. Also included are casting sessions from the smaller roles, and a second promotional behind-the-scenes segment.
While not as funny as expected, What Just Happened carves a place for itself in the canon of "movies about making movies" by being neither a spoof nor a satire. It's not always successful, but is nonetheless worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes