Movie Review by Todd McCarthy on Variety
Hollywood is skewered, but with a degree of benevolent indulgence, in "What Just Happened?" This is scarcely the first time prominent industry insiders have turned their lenses on their own kind to hold them up to public scrutiny, even ridicule, and in the annals of pictures about the film capital, writer-producer Art Linson and director Barry Levinson's rates somewhere in the midrange, both in quality and viciousness. A story very much by, about and for middle-aged men, and with the commercial limitations that implies, this intermittently amusing outing is graced by one of Robert De Niro's more engaging performances of recent vintage.
Based on Linson's 2002 book about the vicissitudes of producing pictures in contempo Tinseltown, his script offers none-too-thinly disguised versions of real-life people and incidents, more than one of which are linked to Linson's David Mamet-penned thriller "The Edge," starring Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins and directed by Lee Tamahori.
Behavior on view here is treacherous, immoral, usurious, insincere, backstabbing, childish, preposterous and silly -- in other words, business as usual. Some of it is genuinely funny, some rather labored, and a portion not really credible. While injecting fun wherever he can, Levinson regards it all with benign bemusement, to the extent that one of the film's main shortcomings is a lack of point of view.
Preston Sturges' and Vincente Minnelli's great films about Hollywood, for instance, "Sullivan's Travels" and "The Bad and the Beautiful," respectively, never shied away from spotlighting the industry's foibles or the manipulative means people employed to get their way. But the conclusion in both cases was that the ends justified the means because the pictures, and/or the people who made them, were so compelling.
At the other end of the spectrum, Robert Altman in "The Player" implied that members of the community were so venal they would resort to anything, even murder, to prevail in the business. In "What Just Happened?" all that's at stake is keeping the machine running in order to ensure survival at the high end of the economic food chain.
When an audience test-screening of "Fiercely," an arty actioner starring Sean Penn, bombs -- the film breaks a cardinal Hollywood rule by killing a dog in the final scene -- studio chief Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener) mandates recutting, beginning with the dog. It's up to old pro producer Ben (De Niro) to get wild man director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott, doing a hilarious loutish Brit act in Keith Richards garb) to make the changes in time for the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, where the pic is due to unspool on opening night.
But that's just one of Ben's problems. He's still quite fond of his second ex-wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn) and tries to engineer a reconciliation, even as he deduces she's sleeping with a screenwriter acquaintance (Stanley Tucci). Then there's his cute high-school-age daughter Zoe (Kristen Stewart), who's probably doing stuff Ben would rather not know about...
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