February 24, 2009
Review - " What Just Happened? " - (on DVD) By Roland Hansen
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What Just Happened?
Starring: Robert De Niro, Robin Wright Penn, Kristen Stewart, Sean Penn,
Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro
"What Just Happened?", an inside look into the movie business and big studio
politics. It's a satirical film about the movie industry and based on a true story
of a movie producer, Art Linson. In this film his name is changed to Ben. Sean
Penn and Bruce Willis play themselves, more or less. Especially Willis is great
as a kind of diva version of himself. It's all about the beard in this one! You got
to see this film to believe! Hollywood is a crazy place and reality is stranger
The film tells the story of a successful Hollywood producer, Ben, played by
Robert Deniro, as he juggles his personal and professional crises. This film
has an impressive cast including Robin Wright Penn as Ben's second wife,
Kelly; Kristen Stewart as Zoe, Ben's eldest daughter from his first marriage;
John Turturro as Dick, the stereotypical shifty agent; Stanley Tucci as Scott,
the blocked screenplay writer; Michael Wincott as Jeremy, the temperamental
director; Catherine Keener, as Lou, the hardcore studio exec; Bruce Willis as
himself,the demanding movie star; and Sean Penn as himself, the demanding
Telling the story of troubled producer (De Niro) as he tries to mediate between his bosses, his children, ex-wives and
tempramental actors, "What Just Happened?" attempts to tell the 'truth' about Hollywood in a comical albeit sombre and
satirical manner. Ben, our focus for these two hours, invites us into two weeks of his life; think of it like 'a day in the
life of a Hollywood producer' stretched out over another thirteen days. What ensues is a rather biographical tale of a man
trying to deal with big shots in suits, a Bruce Willis in a Grizzly Adams beard plus twenty extra pounds around the middle,
and a wife that recently kicked him out. It's a funny story for sure, but a lack of focus on the story's greatest elements
(being the Hollywood satire) hurts the overall pacing and momentum of the feature. At near two hours long, there was room
for some cutting, and while the domestic story involving his wife and kids has its moments, it neither serves the character all
that well, or the comedy.
There are elements that make the film fun to watch if nothing else. To see Robert De Niro play "a character" that it's not
in any way a semi parody of the films that made him famous is a welcome surprise in itself. Barry Levinson shows that he's
as sharp as ever and the rhythms that he finds to tell the story keeps the tired tale not only alive but almost gripping
(almost, but not quite).
The film is effectively a window into Ben's life over a period of a couple weeks, and not all the plot threads are resolved.
There are other minor threads which are left dangling, such as Ben finding out that his high school daughter has had some
sort of relationship with an agent who recently committed suicide, schmoozing with Arab would-be film financiers, a fling
with a girl encountered at a trade function etc. - these things are all parts of Ben's life, but none of them actually goes
anywhere within the setup of the movie.
This is a movie that provides ample acting opportunity by an ensemble of good actors, which the movie makers have been
successful in assembling. De Niro who is comfortable with the multi-faceted man constantly multi-tasking and role-playing in
trying to tackle and hopefully resolve his proliferation of problems. Robin Wright Penn plays the practical, estranged wife
with whom Ben is still trying to find a balance. There are several very good scenes between the two of them – trying to get
back together, attending marriage (actually, separation) counselling sessions, and even just talking over the phone.
In the work front, it is delightful to see Catherine Keener playing the passionlessly icy studio head. Toronto-born actor
Michael Wincott portrayal of the temperamental, eccentric director is also a joy to watch, and the scene of their
confrontation, with Ben in the middle, is a treat. Stanley Tucci's slightly underplayed sleazy screenwriter is as watchable
as scene-stealing John Turturro's slightly overplayed neurotic Hollywood agent. Kristen Stewart is wonderful as the teenage
daughter with a secret, but she was woefully underused and her story arc went nowhere. Playing themselves are sure-fired
Sean Penn and Bruce Willis, the former as the star of the movie heading for Cannes and the latter as the said superstar
that refuses to part with his grizzly beard. Willis, in particular, must be having a ball with his outlandish cameo.
The film is certainly enjoyable, and has several laugh-out-loud moments. However, like the film within the film, "What Just
Happened?" feels too long. I really enjoyed this film, but I am afraid that much of the appeal will be missing in a general
audience. A producer trying to change Bruce Willis' mind is pretty funny, but how funny is it to a non-producer or a non-
Bruce-Willis? The performances, are, of course, outstanding. The entire cast is composed of nearly uncriticizable actors
who are superb in any role they attempt. If you have an interest in how films come to be, this is a fun little flick. If you
don't care about the behind-the-scenes, you may want to sit this one out. I can't recommend this title to anyone but the
dedicated film fan who will see a lot of the in jokes about Hollywood, everyone else should give it a miss.
This mildly funny expose of modern-day Hollywood, was
entertaining, but a little disappointing. The message is
supposed to shock and outrage the viewer about how the film
industry ruins art by turning it into pure commerce. It gives its
winks and nods to the egomania, the precociousness of
directors and stars, and how personal lives get caught up in
the mix without getting too smug with us common moviegoers.
Although the source of the material is authentic and despite
an outstanding cast (who all give great performances),
"What Just Happened?" ultimately has nothing new to say
besides the fact that Hollywood is a devious place to work.
This film won't appeal to everyone, but it does have some
good one liners and funny moments. However, the
combination of these actors working together in a comedy
may be worth the cost of admission alone.