Friday, October 31, 2008

What Just Happened: Nothing much

What Just Happened (2008) • View trailer for What Just Happened
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, brief (but shocking) violence, fleeting nudity and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.31.08
Buy DVD: What Just Happened • Buy Blu-Ray: What Just Happened? [Blu-ray]

I'm not sure it's possible for a film to satirize Hollywood at this late date.

Back in the days of Sunset Boulevard and The Bad and the Beautiful, Tinseltown was a largely mysterious dream factory that hypnotized Midwestern ingenues, discarded most of them, but nurtured a chosen few and made them stars who truly were, at the time, much larger than life.
While Ben (Robert De Niro, center) and the nebbishy Dick (John Turturro, right)
watch apprehensively, Bruce Willis (left, playing himself) places the first spade
full of dirt on the coffin of a Hollywood agent who unexpectedly took his life.

Scathing cinema indictments about the film industry therefore were greeted with curiosity and considerable interest, particularly when such pictures cut close enough to the bone to raise the wrath of studio bigwigs who worried that a composite character looked a little too familiar.

But we now live in a media fishbowl: an era of TV gossip shows such as Entertainment Tonight, where celebrity misbehavior and studio venality are as commonplace as beer and pretzels. Nothing about the process is secret or even mysterious any more; Terry Gilliam's heroic battle with Universal Pictures, over the integrity of his script for Brazil, has become the stuff of legend. Similar tales fill every issue of magazines such as Entertainment Weekly.

Even the subtler elements of filmmaking have become tabloid fodder, as when soundtrack composer Gabriel Yared broke the code of silence and orchestrated a public meltdown when his score for Troy was summarily dismissed and replaced by hackwork from James Horner. Such musical substitutions no longer are carefully guarded studio secrets; we now know all about Henry Mancini's rejected score for Hitchcock's Frenzy, or Alex North's rejected score for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Goodness, you can buy the latter score, and compare it to what Stanley Kubrick used instead.

All of which explains why What Just Happened, despite quite engaging performances from star Robert De Niro and several key supporting players, just isn't very interesting. Despite its wholly authentic pedigree — adapted by actual Hollywood producer Art Linson (The Untouchables, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Fight Club and last year's Into the Wild, among many others) from his wonderfully salacious memoir, What Just Happened: Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line — what emerges in director Barry Levinson's film is just a lot of been there, done that.

Let's see...

• A protagonist too married to his job to sustain any actual relationships: check.

• The obligatory poke at laughably stupid sessions with a shrink: check.

• An on-set tantrum by an overpaid star: check.

• The agent too cowed by his clients to rein in their narcissistic behavior: check.

• The nubile young cuties willing to sleep their way into a career: check.

• The devastated indie filmmaker who feels betrayed when ordered to re-cut the ending of his "challenging" film: check.

I'm actually tempted to read Linson's book, because I'm sure it's much more aggressively and hilariously outrageous than what he and Levinson have chosen to adapt here.

Because — and this is the most damning indictment — Levinson's film cannot help being compared to Robert Altman's The Player, which covered much the same territory and did so far more cleverly. I don't know why Levinson held himself back; I kept waiting for the truly scathing satirical tone he brought to Wag the Dog, but it never arrives.

At the end of the day, What Just Happened is simply too gentle and safe.

The film chronicles two average weeks in the life of Ben (De Niro), a veteran film producer currently nursemaiding two contentious projects. The first is a dark, "boldly visionary" thriller titled Fiercely and starring Sean Penn (playing himself), which concludes with a climax so dark and unexpectedly gruesome that the focus group screening audience responds with furious disgust.

This prompts a bottom-line demand from studio chief Lou (Catherine Keener, absolutely excellent in every scene), who orders Ben to make the director — Michael Wincott, channeling Keith Richards in his portrayal of the drug-addled Jeremy — re-cut the picture, or face having it removed from his control and re-edited by somebody else.

Additionally, Lou promises to withdraw the picture from its upcoming Cannes Film Festival debut, should Jeremy prove ... reluctant.

At the same time, Ben is about to start shooting another, much more bankable project blessed with the starring presence of Bruce Willis (also playing himself). Unfortunately, in a fit of artistic hubris similar to when Marlon Brando arrived on the set of 1975's Missouri Breaks wearing a dress (true story, and he wore the outfit in the finished film), Willis has turned porky and is sporting a bushy beard that all but hides his familiar features.

And so another edict comes down from this studio chief: Make Willis shave the beard, or he's in breach of his $20 million contract, and he'll be fired.

Ben quite logically demands that Dick (John Turturro), Willis' agent, convey the news. But Dick, a walking pharmacological case study of ailments real and imagined, is too scared of Willis to risk arousing the star's considerable ire.

(Willis, it should be mentioned, is either a good sport or has a healthy sense of himself. One also suspects he couldn't possibly be guilty of such bad behavior in real life, or else he'd be reluctant to lampoon it.)

As far as his personal life goes, Ben supports two ex-wives in disgustingly opulent style — which they feel is justified — and makes time each morning to take two sets of children (who live with their respective mothers) to school. That's a cute gag, as is Ben's wounded fixation on ex-wife No. 1's (Robin Wright Penn) decision to re-upholster a beloved couch.

But neither of these little touches ever really goes anywhere; we never see the younger set of children again, while the teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart) reappears later solely to punctuate a somewhat hypocritical funeral gathering.

(Again, in passing, what's with this serendipitous creation of characters with peculiar fixations on furniture? De Niro's remarks can't help sounding like echoes of George Clooney's goofball federal marshal in Burn After Reading, who was equally obsessed by interior decoration.)

Additional sidebar elements include Ben's screenwriter friend (Stanley Tucci, as Scott), who has just completed a script that our hero doesn't really want ... but also doesn't want anybody else to produce; and some rather shady Eastern European "investors" who'd like to bankroll Ben's next project with funds that apparently derive from decidedly dodgy sources.

Everything just sort of drifts hither and yon, without making much of an impact: tentative sparring jabs that never land any of the breathtakingly audacious haymakers that a film of this nature so desperately needs.

Sure, De Niro displays his superb comic timing and wonderfully put-upon nature; it's impossible to avoid being on Ben's side during all his absurd travails, even though he's clearly as shallow as the next person. De Niro simply makes Ben's behavior more forgivable, as if he's the woebegone guy being buffeted by events beyond his control ... rather than the guy who, let's be honest, put all these events into play in the first place.

Keener is rock-solid believable as an iron-gloved studio chief who knows she never needs to raise her voice, because she wields the true power; Turturro is hilarious as the increasingly panicked Dick, whose reflexive coughing and gagging fits are a sidesplitting echo of all the wonderful glottal noises Jack Lemmon made as Felix Unger in The Odd Couple.

Tucci, unfortunately, fares rather poorly; I can't help feeling that most of his part wound up on the cutting-room floor — ironic, in a project of this nature — since there seems little reason for an actor of his stature to inhabit so fleeting and inconsequential a role.

I wanted to like this film more; all the proper ingredients seem to be in place, but Levinson simply wasn't chef enough to make the soufflé rise. And, given the stealth marketing campaign that has dumped What Just Happened into release with very little publicity, it seems as though Magnolia Pictures has abandoned it.

Which, ultimately, makes the title ironically apt.

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