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.
Professionally, he faces a vexing hassle with the temperamental star (Bruce Willis) of a big film due to begin shooting within the week. The actor adamantly refuses to shave off the mangy beard he’s been growing for six months despite the requirements of the leading role; if the beard stays, the studio walks, a position that forces Ben to deal with the thesp’s neurotic agent Dick Bell (John Turturro), a cringing wimp with a severe stomach disorder who’s terrified of his own client.
Ben is always on the move, trying to put out fires all over town. But he’s been around long enough to handle things with relative cool and usually, if not always, steer things his way. Pic’s most consistent pleasure rests in watching De Niro, who looks good and pretty fit, wade neck-deep into every situation, take the temperature of the room and deal with it (one negotiation he can’t win is for better position in a Vanity Fair group photo of Hollywood producers).
Along the way, there are constant phone calls, a bit of sex, plenty of arguments, little of what seems like actual work as most people know it, and a Hollywood funeral for an agent who committed suicide, in which Willis, sporting his rabbinical-sized beard, eulogizes the deceased with immortal words very close to those Bill Murray reportedly once intoned under similar circumstances: “I see so many people here today I’d rather be eulogizing instead of Jack.”
As if at the end of a high-stakes poker game, all the players are forced to show their hand at the Cannes premiere, with interesting results. The problem is that “Fiercely,” from the looks of it a mediocre Eurotrashy actioner, does not feel like a Cannes sort of film (unless you grant that opening-night films are often bad), nor the sort of thing Penn would make, much less stand up for as a work of artistic integrity.
Penn flits in and out, at one point reminding the studio chief he’ll need the G5 for Cannes so he can smoke on the flight, and Willis gets extra points for his willingness to so extravagantly mock his own image as well as those of every star who’s ever been reputed to throw their weight around. Keener sharply catches the big boss’ shrewdness and agreeable social face, while Wright Penn vacillates with impunity as the ex still not entirely sure what she wants.
Tech contributions are smooth on a budget, and Marco Zarvos’ peppy, flavorsome score is a noted plus.