Magnolia Pictures // 2008 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 24th, 2009
In Hollywood, everybody can hear you scream.
"The dog can't die."
Ben (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver) is one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood. He's just been featured in a Vanity Fair article spotlighting, "The 30 Most Powerful People in the Industry." Despite his strong track record, Ben's career is in a bit of trouble at the moment. He's producing a movie called Fiercely starring Sean Penn. It's an action-thriller, and the first test screening goes horribly. The audience responds very badly to the brutal shooting of a dog during the film's final scene. Lou the studio boss (Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich) demands that the film be fixed immediately. Ben attempts to talk to the director (Michael Wincott, The Count of Monte Cristo), who is absolutely adamant about retaining the "integrity" of his work.
As if this weren't enough of a problem, a second film that Ben is producing has also run into trouble. Bruce Willis has been paid 20 million dollars to play the lead role, but when Bruce shows up to work, he's sporting a "Grizzly Adams beard." The studio panics, fearful that female viewers will not be happy with Bruce's new look. Ben attempts to talk Bruce into shaving the beard and receives a violent temper tantrum for his efforts. Ben asks Bruce's agent (John Turturro, Miller's Crossing) to talk his client, but the agent refuses. "You know the messenger always gets shot," he stammers nervously.
When Ben isn't running back and forth trying to fix his two films, he's got a variety of personal problems to deal with. Ben has two ex-wives. He has a teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart, Twilight) with the first wife, and two younger children with Kelly (Robin Wright Penn, Hurlyburly), his second wife. At the moment, Ben and Kelly are attending counseling sessions designed to help them come to peace with the idea of living apart. The trouble is, Ben still has strong feelings for Kelly. Unfortunately for Ben, Kelly just so happens to be in the middle of a passionate affair with Scott (Stanley Tucci, The Terminal), a screenwriter and friend of Ben's. Can Ben prevent his entire life from crashing into oblivion?
The Hollywood satire is admittedly a difficult thing to pull off. Because making a Hollywood movie about the horrors of Hollywood is akin to biting the hand that feeds you, a variety of factors tend to come into play. Sometimes these films nervously go cartoonishly over-the-top in a goofy sort of way, making broad insults without ever really offending anyone. Others play it very safe, weakening the humor in favor of staying in good stand with the studio bosses. Still others are angry and savage attacks that are so blinded by hatred that they simply can't manage to see the objective truth. We all know that Altman's The Player is the king of such films, as it offers a sharp skewering of Hollywood with savvy, merciless, unflinching cool. Sadly, What Just Happened is yet another statement about Hollywood that falls far short of Altman's gold standard.
The screenplay was provided by writer/producer Art Linson, who is adapting an alternate version of his own real-life memoir written in 2002. In the process of fictionalizing these true stories, Linson's attack lost its punch. The jabs here are actually rather mild from start to finish. Nobody will take offense to the film, except perhaps Alec Baldwin, whose behavior on the set of The Edge served as the inspiration for Willis' amusing performance. Even so, the very fact that Willis is playing himself in the film rather than playing a character takes some of the edge off. Hey, it's just an actor making fun of himself. For that matter, it's Bruce Willis, who also made fun of himself in Nancy Drew, Ocean's 12, and most recently on The Late Show with David Letterman in which he provided a "deleted scene" from High School Musical 3. We get it, Bruce. You're cool with poking fun at your own image. Let someone else have a turn. Curiously enough, Sean Penn is also playing himself, and is much less colorful here than he is in real life (remember his rant about conservative pundits, "bathing in the moisture of [President Bush's] soiled and blood-soaked underwear").
Here's the real kicker. Nobody important will be offended, because this is the rare Hollywood satire that takes the side of the people in power. The studio bosses and producers are portrayed as smart, reasonable, intelligent people who are just attempting to do their job. One could even say that it portrays De Niro's character as something of a long suffering saint, despite the sort of colorful "character flaws" that no one will really object to. It's those crazy, self-absorbed, artsy-fartsy actors and directors causing the problems! It's more than obvious that the film was written by a producer.
What Just Happened (where is the question mark, I wonder?) was directed by Barry Levinson, surely Hollywood's most inconsistent director. It's hard to believe that the guy who made Rain Man and Wag the Dog also made Envy and Man of the Year. This film falls squarely in the middle of Levinson's output. It's not a very good movie, but it's not as bad as most of his recent movies. Even so, Levinson (and Linson too, for that matter) may very well be the butt of the film's cruelest and most ironic joke. At one point in What Just Happened, Catherine Keener complains about the 25 million dollars she invested in Fiercely, saying that she's probably not going to get much of that money back. It just so happens that the cost of making What Just Happened was 25 million dollars. The box office gross? Just barely over 1 million. Ouch.
The film doesn't offer much of interest on a visual level, but the hi-def transfer is reasonably respectable. Facial detail and background detail are solid, and blacks are reasonably deep. There is just a bit of black crush on occasion, but it's not too bad. I did notice a surprising level of grain on a few occasions, and it didn't seem to be intentional. Rather unusual for a new release like this one. The audio is a bit more impressive, as the very clever Marcelo Zarvos score weaves in and out of the film in an amusingly obtrusive way that serves as one of the film's running gags (apparently Ben spends most of his time listening to the soundtracks of whatever film he happens to be producing). The mix is a rather rich one for a character-driven drama like this one; a pleasant surprise.
The special features here are a mixed bag. The commentary from Barry Levinson and Art Linson is reasonably engaging, but I've certainly heard better Levinson tracks. I kind of preferred the making-of featurette, which is actually just 23 minutes of interviews with Levinso, Linson, and De Niro. It's professional and insightful; avoiding the feeling of being an EPK item. Some screen tests and behind-the-scenes footage are a waste of time, while a brief featurette about the dog featured in the film is just silly. Finally, there are a few hit-and-miss deleted scenes. Most of the supplements are presented in standard-def (480i) non-anamorphic widescreen. Yuck.
It would be difficult for a cast like this to provide an entirely unsatisfying movie. It's nice to see De Niro actually taking a role seriously for the first time in a while. He's in pretty much every scene, and keeps the film watchable at all times. John Turturro, Catherine Keener, Bruce Willis, and Robin Wright Penn all seem to be having a good time. However, the film is stolen by Michael Wincott, whose portrayal of the frustrated director is far and away the funniest thing in the film. While the film might not have been as insightful or funny as I was hoping, I will say that it does offer a pretty convincing portrait of how Hollywood works. In many ways, What Just Happened feels more like a docudrama than anything else.
What just happened? A great cast starred in a film that never really reached its full potential. The Blu-ray is perfectly sufficient, if you're HD-enabled.
Guilty of failing to find a way to overcome the pitfalls of its genre.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Casting Sessions