What Just Happened
2008, R, 107 min. Directed by Barry Levinson. Starring Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, Kristen Stewart, Lily Rabe, Robin Wright Penn, Catherine Keener, Michael Wincott, Sean Penn.
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Oct. 31, 2008
Poor Ben (De Niro). On the surface, his life looks perfect: He’s a successful Hollywood movie producer with money, power, influence, and what appears to be a clear conscience. In other words, he’s got it all. Dig a little deeper, however, and you realize Ben’s life – plagued by divorce, perpetual worry, and chronic sycophancy (both aimed at and by him) – is like the set of one of his movies: pretty to look at but foundationless and ready to crumble at a moment’s notice. He’s a classic movie-business big shot: a king whose kingdom is under constant siege from the perilous outer darkness – or what people in Hollywood call “box office failure.” Among his current troubles is an unhinged British auteur (Wincott) who refuses to kowtow to the demands of the studio signing his checks, protesting (with all the scattergun, pill-fueled vehemence movies love bestowing on “artists”) that, in his action movie, no one will “indulge in clichés of retribution.” To hell with happy endings and commercial success and studio heads, he declares: Good guys, and even dogs, beware. Then there’s Bruce Willis, played by Willis, an action-movie star with an outsized ego who refuses to shave his beard – claiming artistic “integrity” (a word he speaks with such forceful regularity and comic self-righteousness you wonder if he thinks he can conjure up the virtue simply by pronouncing it enough times) as his justification – for his role in a $100 million popcorn movie, threatening the livelihoods of everyone involved, including Ben. In Hollywood, you see, art and human decency are worth precisely nothing compared to the demands of commerce and the whims of inflated ego. These are clichés, of course – everybody knows Hollywood would remake Citizen Kane with computer-animated talking dogs it they thought it would make money, and superstars would rather choke than be treated as anything less than royalty. It’s just a shame to see them coming from Levinson, who made Wag the Dog and should know better. But the real tragedy of What Just Happened isn’t that it succumbs to predictable pseudo-satirical farce but that when it does, it loses sight of the very thing that could have made it a film worth caring about: the story of a man perpetually caught between art and business, between strength and weakness, between adoration and loneliness, between success and failure, between the movies and reality.