What Just Happened?



Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- Hollywood once more bites the hand that feeds it in Barry Levinson's "What Just Happened?", writer-producer Art Linson's satirical fictionalization of his 2002 memoir "What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line."

Of course, Robert Altman made this movie over 15 years ago with the scathingly accurate bulls-eye "The Player." Blake Edward's version, "S.O.B.," dates back 26 years. Come to think of it, King Vidor made this picture in 1928 when it was called "Show People." Levinson's own "Wag the Dog," an intersection of Hollywood and politics a mere decade ago, caught a movie producer in full comic glory.

So the question is: What has Levinson and Linson brought to this re-make that is exciting, new and different? Not much.

There are noteworthy lines that belong in anyone's hall of fame, a few solidly drawn prototypes -- let's not say stereotypes -- of industry sharks and the kind that pretend to be minnows and a propulsive story that follows a week in the life of a producer frantically trying to salvage two projects while juggling a personal life that could be, and in fact is, its own movie. Many audiences will respond to this often amusing faux Hollywood tinsel, even those who realize the real tinsel is much more tawdry and callous.

The problem is that Altman and Edwards viewed themselves as outsiders. Levinson and Linson are the ultimate insiders for whom, to quote the title of Norman Jewison's autobiography, "This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me." They have too much love and genuine affection for the movies and the way they get made to cut very deep. Everything here is a paper cut.

A bad test screening of his Sean Penn movie, "Fiercely," sends its producer Ben (Robert De Niro) into a tailspin. Blunt studio chef Lou (Catherine Keener) demands cuts and changes, especially to that ending where the dog gets killed. Manic British director Jeremy (Michael Wincott) resists fiercely, then gives up a year of sobriety to face the editing room braced with serious narcotics and alcohol.

Meanwhile, at another studio, a production head threatens to pull the plug on Ben's new movie about to shoot unless star Bruce Willis (kidding himself as he did in "The Player") shaves his beard. His agent Dick (John Turturro) refuses to broach the subject with his client because he is terrified of him and has the stomach disorders to prove it.

While juggling cell phone calls and driving all over the L.A. basin, Ben strives to reunite with his estranged wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn) despite the two being in "separation therapy," discovers that screenwriter Scott (Stanley Tucci) is sleeping with her and tries to stay friends with his teenage daughter Zoe (Kristen Stewart).

In small, humiliating moments -- such as when Lou contemptuously dismisses Ben's assistant from a conference -- the film accurately catches Hollywood at its ugliest. But the bigger moments of outrageous conduct feel forced and predictable. The real antics of Hollywood misbehavior can't be scripted. Here things go wrong just as you expect they might.

The subplots involving screenwriter Scott and daughter Zoe do not yield any insights, comic or otherwise. A funeral sequence involving an agent who killed himself is terribly miscalculated with slapstick comedy only adding to its tastelessness. A third act at Cannes somehow lets the air out of the bag. Even the dog going up the red carpet doesn't help.

All tech credits are up to the Levinson/Linson standards, although locations outside of the studio lots veer oddly away from all the well-known industry hangouts.

What Just Happened?
2929 Productions/Art Linson Productions/Tribeca Productions

Director: Barry Levinson
Writer: Art Linson
Based on the book by: Art Linson
Producers: Robert DeNiro, Art Linson, Jane Rosenthal, Barry Levinso
Executive producer: Mark Cuban, Todd Wagner
Director of photography: Stephane Fontaine
Production designer: Stefania Cella
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Editor: Hank Corwin

Ben: Robert DeNiro
Himself: Bruce Willis
Himself: Sean Penn
Lou Tarrow: Catherine Keener
Jeremy Brunell: Michael Wincott
Kelly: Robin Wright Penn
Scott Solomon: Stanley Tucci
Dick Bell: John Turturro
Zoe: Kristen Stewart

MPAA rating: R, running time 113 minutes.

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