There are delicately few films that choose to tackle the other side of the silver screen. There's something strangely cannibalistic about the whole process, as behemoth studios coil inside themselves to capture the blood and guts that go into any motion picture. Perhaps it's cathartic, and allows the greater movie industry to shed it's old cinematic skin and move forward, off into the underbrush.
Or maybe it's because movie producers are nuts.
More than likely it's a little bit of both, and What Just Happened does a fair job capitalizing on this dichotomy. Punctuated by moments of hilarity, introspection, obscurity, and lowest common denominator comedy, at points you may be wondering if there is enough hot air left in the balloon to float. There is, but it's due in large part to the star power that helps to lighten the load.
What Just Happened tackles two weeks in the life of manic movie producer Ben (Robert De Niro) as he lugs around a fire extinguisher full of one-liners, self-loathing and downright fear. Charged with extinguishing the flames of any and every emerging crisis (like any good producer), Ben runs between studios and luncheons and the luxurious homes of both his ex-wives. Fueled primarily on the phobia that his new avante-garde flick (starring Sean Penn) is a little too risque, Ben sets about working the very reluctant director Jeremy (Michael Wincott) for a final cut of the film, with the distributors at his back and Jeremy's drug addiction staring him straight in the eye. As the plot culminates in Cannes, all forces converge in anticipation of the ultimate edition of the make-or-break film.
The hard part of such a story line is that it can tend to be a little too "inside baseball" for most moviegoers. Admittedly there's a fine line between the knowledge of realism and the delusions of cinema, but What Just Happened can tend to veer too heavily into the undercurrents of what is essentially an elite group of wealthy white folks trying to maximize their paychecks in the most manipulative ways they can think of. It is also desperately short on real laughs, relying more on the awkward chuckles that come easily in a darkened theatre house. However, the B plot line involves a heavyset and overly-scruffy Bruce Willis who refuses to shave for his role as the sexy leading man. With John Turturro as Willis' neurotic, narcissistic agent - a man so afraid to confront his own client that he begins dry-heaving at it's very mention - the film really starts to pick up steam and get the audience laughing. Unfortunately, director Barry Levinson has a hard time finding and expanding these moments, leaving a film light on the diamonds and heavy on the rough.
If there is anything that carries What Just Happened to the end, it's all the names you'll find on the movie poster. Like the blitzing booze concoctions you made from your blender in college, there's just too many good ingredients for the recipe to fail. That doesn't mean it's particularly good, either. But without the stiff backing of the dazzlingly committed and always hilarious John Turturro, the dependable Stanley Tucci, Catherine Keener and De Niro himself, What Just Happened would certainly be on the rocks.