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A Hollywood master flames out
by Jason Blair
WHAT JUST HAPPENED?: Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Art Linson. Cinematography, Stéphane Fontaine. Music, Marcelo Zarvos. Starring Robert DeNiro, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Bruce Willis, Robin Wright Penn, Stanley Tucci and John Turturro. Magnolia Pictures, 2008. R. 107 minutes.
Aiming directly for Robert Altman’s The Player but landing nearer to For Your Consideration, What Just Happened? is a Hollywood satire with the edges filed down. It has more gums than teeth, I’m afraid, concerning as it does a series of aging stars — some of them, like Sean Penn and Bruce Willis, playing themselves — who, along with their managers, sense their influence waning somewhat. Actually, the story arc of What Just Happened? isn’t manifestly about aging; instead, it creates a double helix of fun around Bruce Willis’s beard (and his unwillingness to shave it) and a scene in which a dog gets executed (and a director’s unwillingness to cut it). With material like that, a film better find a spry mix of vanity and vulnerability, but What Just Happened? is resolutely stiff in its bones. One hardly expects Hollywood to give itself the Huguenot treatment — a throat-slashing, grave-robbing vision of the industry’s excess — but having a few fierce creatures around wouldn’t hurt.
Fiercely is, in fact, the name of Ben’s (Robert DeNiro’s) current project, an action flick starring Sean Penn. Fiercely won’t get released by studio chief Lou (a steely Catherine Keener) unless director Jeremy (Micheal Wincott) removes the jarring dog-death scene. Lou’s job is to eviscerate films until they’re palatable, while Jeremy’s job seems to be impersonating Axl Rose. Ben, a Hollywood producer, doesn’t need the drama — it’s in his films already. Beyond Willis’s facial hair, which is way more hillbilly than haute, Ben still has the problem of his ex-wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), a woman he can neither abide nor live without but who appears to be dating a writer named Scott (Stanley Tucci). That’s a page directly from The Player, but my reaction is the same now as then: Writers are good at many things — talking about writing, thinking about writing, and yes, sometimes writing itself — but they do not do the things that movies say they do, like stealing girls and plotting people’s destruction. They just don’t have the stomachs for it.
It’s all very complicated for Ben, a graceful but insecure man for whom the truth is always partial, a quality which makes him one hell of a producer but pretty lousy as a husband. What Just Happened? is not that funny, but it’s more than a little scary, at least in terms of how much Ben succeeds at neglecting what’s important (love) for what he thinks is important (work). Thus the film has very little to care about because Ben himself is so unlikable and undemonstrative. Like all sharks, he doesn’t emote; he just feeds and feeds relentlessly. And he’ll remain a shark until a bigger fish arrives and decides Ben looks like lunch.
Producer and director Barry Levinson has created a number of important films, but he’s never matched his run from Diner, his 1982 debut, to Rain Man a few years later. As if sensing the staleness of his material this time out (the screenplay, by producer Art Linson, is based upon Linson’s book), Levinson compensates with a fast-cut style that only makes matters worse, undercutting the script’s emptiness with hyperkinetic shots of Ben driving on the freeway. It’s meant to evoke a powerlessness that’s too obvious and trite. Late in the film, in a thoughtful defense of director Jeremy, Ben finally stands his ground, but it only gets him left behind when Lou easily outsmarts them both. A shark is a shark. Why change Ben now? It left me thinking of the film’s title in a way the director couldn’t have intended.
What Just Happened? opens Friday, Nov. 7, at the Bijou.