"What Just Happened" is deep Hollywood inside-baseball, and for a while it cooks along with malevolent glee. Robert De Niro plays a successful movie producer and the initial shock is that the star seems actively engaged in his role. De Niro's not phoning it in! Stop the presses!
His character, Ben, has been around the block and understands that a producer's industry mojo rises and falls with each new movie he makes. Where you're positioned on the cover of the annual Vanity Fair Power Issue says it all, and at the moment, Ben is practically over by the staples.
His latest film, a grueling arthouse drama directed by a British bad boy (Michael Wincott) and starring Sean Penn (who plays himself), has just received possibly the worst sneak-preview cards in history. (Sample: "I want to find the people responsible for this movie and kill them.") Studio head and Lord High Executioner Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener) demands a recut.
Ben's other big production hasn't begun shooting and never may, since star Bruce Willis (who plays himself) has arrived on set with a huge beard and a bigger attitude. Those who know their Hollywood gossip may recognize a real-life source: Alec Baldwin's similarly hirsute grandstanding during the filming of 1997's "The Edge." Producer Art Linson got a book out of that (2002's "What Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line") and he serves as screenwriter here, lightly fictionalizing real dirt into true lies.
That may be the problem with the film, actually. De Niro, Linson, and director Barry Levinson are all longtime insiders, and they offer no larger message than that careers in Hollywood are nasty, absurd, and short. Robert Altman's "The Player" brought paranoia and a devastating moralism to this subject, and movies as diverse as "Sullivan's Travels" and "Swimming With Sharks" have been funnier. "What Just Happened," by contrasts, mostly just happens.
It's taken for granted that everybody in the film industry smiles as they backstab, that stars and directors are egotistical children. After a while you wait for the movie to tell you something you don't know. The large and varied cast has fun biting the hand that feeds them: Stanley Tucci as a double-dealing writer, Robin Wright Penn as Ben's estranged second wife, Kristen Stewart as a wayward teenage daughter.
The only actor who pushes the envelope into necessary gonzo territory, though, is John Turturro as a sniveling scaredy-cat of an agent, hiding out in nail salons rather than facing the wrath of Willis. De Niro, while present, doesn't make Ben into the engaging human monster he seems to be on paper. The movie's about an average guy (more or less) trying to make a living (and maybe a good movie) in a business fueled by rapacious, soul-sucking greed. So what's in it for Ben? The film never really clears that up. Eventually it just stalls.
Linson's dialogue has crackle, at least, and the looking-glass logic of LA is expertly punctured when Ben and his wife meet for a divorce therapy session. "You're going to feel so good about being apart that you're never going to want to get back together" they're told, and right there the film touches on something bigger: That insistent Left Coast pleasantness that kills thought and spirit. Otherwise, "What Just Happened" is so myopic you feel like answering back "Why Should I Care?"