What Just Happened
directed by Barry Levinson
written by Art Linson
based on the book by Art Linson
starring Robert De Niro, Catherine Keener, Michael Wincott, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Stewart, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn
An insider’s gaffe into the ins and out of the Hollywood sucking machine, this film offers a decently paced, intelligent view of the bright lights and blistering egos of the sordid and mercurial industry.
The story revolves around Bruce Willis’s beard. He plays himself and he’s being payed $20 million to star in the latest film from beleaguered producer Ben (De Niro). Unfortunately for everyone concerned Bruce loves his beard and has no intentions on shaving it off because he has grown rather attached to it. His reluctance threatens to shut down the film and this potential chaos weighs heavily on the soul of Ben who is going through his own brand of hell. One of his latest films, directed by the drug addled Jeremy Brunell (Wincott) tested poorly with audiences because of one disastrous scene that studio boss Lou Tarnow (Keener) insists must be cut out. Meanwhile Ben is going through the ringer with his soon to be ex-wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn) and struggling to understand his daughter Zoe (Stewart) , the spawn of his first wife, who seems to have developed a sexuality that Ben finds cumbersome.
The film is all about the inside wreckage that makes up the typical Hollywood production. There is a legitimate slime factor at play here as everyone involved seems to slither and flick out their tongues at every turn. This is certainly one of the greasiest films of this ilk because everyone involved seems to be coated in slime from head to toe. This film is a series of disagreeable scenes between people who have sold their souls to the highest bidder. It’s a rather effective take on the quiet miseries that afflict those who find themselves drawn into this quagmire where there is nothing but sordid amusements and an ever flowing hosanna of death and ego destruction.
The overall feeling is one of desperation and inevitable heartbreak. Ben is simply a target for all those ill feelings that are a systematic element in the production of any film. The urgency and difficulty inherent in this process is played out well in this film. Sure, it’s mostly cobbled from better films and the overall project comes off as a series of cliches but overall there is something deeply likable about this bird’s eye view of the machinations of deceit that are played out here. It’s a bit claustrophobic which proves to convey the tight quarters in the shark cage as the various players attempt to maneuver for best position and the best shot at freshly killed meat.
Throughout this film deals with rather trivial terrors as Ben tries to sort out a series of distresses that are seemingly bearing down on him all at once. Still, it’s difficult to feel anything whatsoever for him and this probably has much to do with his job description which doesn’t exactly lend itself to sympathy. Actually, just about every character comes off as loathsome in their own way as they repeatedly cut into the flesh of anyone who dares to stand in proximity with them. Still, they just don’t quite cut hard enough to make this into a memorable account of these people and their pathetic attempts to make themselves appear more honorable than they are. The overall result is merely a number of individuals scrapping on the scrap heap looking to score a deal that will transform their ego-drunk happenstance into something bankable long into the dusty future.
This is a staying game and it’s ultimately difficult to comprehend precisely what the intended result is for these creatures of ill repute. Do they merely yearn to be allowed to continue smearing the world’s consciousness with their trite bedlam or do they consider the bottom line as the be all end all of this cinematic slaughterhouse where good ideas are raped and sent packing, back home to the small houses where drunk fathers continue the humiliation with switches and slobbering swipes at what is left of the victim’s dignity and pubic honor? Ben is certainly a likable guy on the surface but surfaces are always misleading in this particular game. There is no room for sweetness and the tender stroking of the chin. Ben’s job necessitates a certain brutality that he must engage with if he is to continue his ascent toward the vaunted peaks where very few are privileged enough to go. Yet, personally, he’s charming after a fashion and uses this ability to convince others to come along for the ride.
Lou is hard and mean which she must be as she is a woman sloughing through what is traditionally a man’s world. She is simply forward and decidedly organized which makes her dangerous to anyone who dares to cross her. Yet, there is something of the gamine in her as she flashes that smile that can charm a farmer out of his last stick of butter. This is Catherine Keener’s genius. She creates this character as both a tiger shark and the woman you would want to spend your time drinking egg nog and changing nappies.
There is a film within a film that features Sean Penn who plays himself with a sort of awkward grace that must cause him to wonder if he really behaves in that manner. The same can be said of Bruce Willis who is actually playing a bloated curmudgeon version of himself as he’s prone to throwing fits because he refuses to lose the beard and become the traditional leading man the film crew and producers are demanding him to be. In a way his plight is sympathetic because he’s merely reflecting an indie sensibility where principle actors often play against the standard look of the leading man and do occasionally look scruffy and ill-kempt. It’s a parody of the Hollywood that insists on keeping things within a specific parameter because it imagines audiences will not accept a character who challenges their expectations.
The performances in this film are all quite good. John Turturro is gangly and possesses a strange mien which is smarmy in its own way but deeply likable nonetheless. His character comes off as rather helpless and suffers from a terrible stomach ailment. Catherine Keener brings a solvency to Lou which is paramount in the film and singularly worth the price of admission. She stands the other characters down and owns every scene she’s in. Stanley Tucci has his own irksome qualities as he works the angle while attempting to get his work read and turned into a film. Robert De Niro plays it rather downbeat and doesn’t seem to be making too much of an effort in this film which is still better than most everyone else out there. Michael Wincott as Jeremy is hyperactive and captures the urgency of the spoilt director who needs so desperately to be loved. He’s petulant but his immense talent allows him to get away with murder.
Overall, this film is a decent overview of the shark eat shark world of Hollywood. It captures the essence of the pains that are a natural part of attempting to create such monumental organisms that so often prove to possess no value whatsoever. This film is all about the interactions of those caught up into the maelstrom and for the most part it delivers a fascinating portrait of just how the industry represents itself. It’s provocative but not necessarily profound. It’s a small film with a minimal agenda and ultimately works out in the end.