- Rated R
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All photos © Magnolia
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t’s been over a decade since director Barry Levinson last made a great film (“Wag the Dog”) and he’s long overdue for a comeback. Unfortunately, “What Just Happened” isn’t the movie that’s going to get him there. Though it definitely has its moments as a behind-the-scenes look at doing business in Hollywood, the film is simply too much of an inside joke to have any kind of mainstream appeal. That doesn’t mean it isn’t any good, but while the first half of the movie is loaded with laughs, the second half is so wildly uneven that you’ll be left wondering “What Just Happened.”
Based on the memoirs of Art Linson, the film stars Robert De Niro as Ben, a successful Hollywood producer who is forced to juggle a series of personal and professional dilemmas over the course of one week. After his latest movie (the Sean Penn thriller “Fiercely”) bombs at a test screening, Ben is tasked with convincing the unruly writer/director (Michael Wincott) to re-cut the film in time for its premiere at Cannes. The movie’s current ending is so reprehensible that it enrages the audience, and though Brunell refuses to compromise his artistic vision, he eventually gives in when the studio executive (Catherine Keener) financing the film threatens to pull out of the festival and cut the movie herself.
Meanwhile, Ben’s next project is just starting production when he discovers that the film’s star (Bruce Willis as himself) has appeared on set overweight and donning a bushy beard. The studio in charge claims that the actor’s unkempt image is not what they paid for when they invested $20 million in the leading man, but when Willis refuses to shave the beard or visit a personal trainer, Ben leans on his cowardly agent (John Turturro) to explain the financial consequences if he doesn’t. And if that wasn’t enough, Ben has just discovered that his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) has already begun sleeping with another man (Stanley Tucci), despite Ben's wishes that they work on fixing their marriage so he can move back home.
It’s not very often that a director gets the chance to work with the likes of Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis and Sean Penn in the same film (let alone one of such small magnitude), but it’s also not surprising that they’d be interested in such a project. After all, Art Linson has produced several of De Niro and Penn’s movies over the years (including “Heat,” “The Untouchables,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Into the Wild”), and after playing himself in Robert Altman’s own insider movie, “The Player,” Willis probably jumped at the chance of doing it again. Unfortunately, Levinson fails to capitalize on the opportunity that’s been presented to him, and though Willis does get laughs for his Grizzly Adams-sized beard, the actor’s parody of himself (or at least the douchebag version) falls remarkably flat. Additionally, Sean Penn’s cameo is so small that a new word should be created just to describe it, while guys like Stanley Tucci and John Turturro are equally as unmemorable.
Only Robert De Niro escapes the film truly unscathed (though he should probably check with his agent the next time he decides to go shirtless), and it’s all thanks to his wonderfully deadpan performance. De Niro has never been shy about his desire to dabble in comedy, and every once in a while (“King of Comedy,” “Meet the Parents”), the right material comes along that he hits out of the park. “What Just Happened” certainly isn’t his best performance to date, but it’s one of his strongest in recent years. It’s still not the highlight of the film, though, as Michael Wincott ultimately steals the show with his hilarious, Keith Richards-inspired turn as the headstrong director. Now if only Barry Levinson had that same appetite for controversy, maybe “What Just Happened” would have the ending it deserved.