Shackled with a star vehicle that culminates in the gangland execution of a cute dog, Hollywood producer Ben (De Niro) tries to save his career while battling ex-wives, whacked-out directors, arrogant stars and the industry itself.
Hollywood can be pretty mean to interlopers, whether it’s Commies in the 1950s, neocons in the Noughties, or TV, like, forever. But if there’s one institution that really comes in for condemnation from Hollywood, it is Hollywood itself. From Sunset Boulevard to ivans xtc, the industry has regularly depicted itself as a venal sinkhole of arrogance. These confessional exclamations appear with such regularity that it comes as a shock to watch an industry satire film that’s as gentle in its opprobrium as What Just Happened?.
Based on his eponymous 2002 book, which chronicled such troubled productions as Fight Club and Pushing Tin, Linson’s script is a Tinseltown trials of Hercules, in which the successful Hollywood producer (Robert De Niro) does battle with every peril possible, from the nebbish agent (John Turturro) to the vicious studio boss (Catherine Keener) who wants to take him down for casting Sean Penn in an arty gangland Britflick.
The most effective scenes take place at night as Ben drives the freeway, listening to his gangster flick’s hip soundtrack. However, this dreamlike approach never lifts, thanks to De Niro’s oddly benign turn as Ben and director Barry Levinson, who adopts the same free rolling, handheld approach as on 1997’s Wag The Dog. Perfectly suited to that film’s wily riff on fake wars and spin-doctors, here it removes any sense of tension from Ben’s situation; it’s like we’re watching the prelude to his life crisis, rather than the crisis itself. The result is that most oxymoronic of sub-genres: the satire made by an insider who’s not quite ready to burn his bridges.
Tellingly, the two performances that go beyond mild lampoonery also offer a glimpse of real viciousness: Michael Wincott’s drug-frazzled Brit auteur and Bruce Willis’ unfettered bear-roar as an overweight ‘Bruce Willis’ who refuses to lose his Grizzly Adams beard for a star role. Wincott could be every young British director who crossed Linson and lost him money, but Willis’ hirsute hissy-fit is based specifically on Alec Baldwin. As Baldwin is no longer the player he once was, the film clearly regards it as safe to savage him, while everyone else in the movie merely pokes fun at themselves. Keep your friends close and kick your enemies when they’re down, Linson seems to be saying. Now that is mean, but that is also Hollywood.
A playful industry satire made by victors. That’s actually pretty cold when you think about it.
Reviewed by Andrew Male