At first glance, one might be surprised to see a film directed by Barry Levinson and starring Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, Robin Wright Penn, Catherine Keener, and John Turturro released not by a major studio but by the relatively small indie distributor Magnolia Pictures. A closer look quickly reveals why: What Just Happened is a scathing insider look at Hollywood, based on the memoir of producer Art Linson. Following in the footsteps of the many great Tinseltown tragicomedies, director Barry Levinson punctures the bubble reputations fostered by glossy E! culture.
De Niro gives one of his most winning performances of recent years as Ben, a put-upon producer trying to keep too many balls in the air. Linson's screenplay gives us a week in the life of his alter ego, a week tellingly overshadowed by the suicide of an agent ("He had ten percent of the brass ring, didn't he?", Ben muses). Linson has no need to exaggerate—the Hollywood anecdotes you’ll find here are essentially true, including the story of how an overweight star’s unwillingness to shave his beard almost destroys a major motion picture scheduled to roll at week's end (Bruce Willis plays “Bruce Willis” in this scenario, though in real life, Alec Baldwin was the bearded star). Turturro plays Willis' fearful agent Dick Bell, who suffers from funny-tragic stomach distress. "I'm not scared of him," Dick insists. "I'm scared of all of them."
Another of Ben's film's—a dark thriller starring Sean Penn and called "Fiercely"—receives a disasterous preview (asked his opinion, Bell demurs, "This could be the year for grief"). The ensuing discussion between the film's unjustifiably self-impressed director (Michael Wincott) and the studio chief (Catherine Keener) focuses not on the film being good or bad (though the latter seems likely, based on the evidence), but rather the film-ending assasination of a dog (a sin the preview audience humorously considers far more egregious than the slaying of Penn). Racing against a Cannes deadline, Ben goes to work convincing the distraught director to recut the ending, which represents a projected $10 million difference in the film's predestined losses. Though it seems unlikely, maybe pharmaceuticals will help.
Doing a job with no boundaries predictably plays havoc with Ben's personal life, telling scored to the soundtrack of his movie (including Ennio Morricone's existentially worrying cut "Man with a Harmonica"). His soon-to-be-ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) has roped him into separation therapy in an attempt surgically to remove a man versed in the art of the deal. There's alimony paid to a first wife (Marin Hinkle), and child support to her daughter with Ben, a blossoming teen named Zoe (Kristen Stewart). Positioned as somewhat of a climax in the story is the agent's funeral, which has nothing to do with the dead man and everything to do with the egos of the power players on site (and a surprising revelation by Zoe). There, a screenwriter friend (Stanley Tucci) asks Ben point blank, "I'm not happy. Is this a feeling that you're unfamiliar with?"
Therefore, although What Just Happened is mostly a drily funny, industry-savvy movie for those fascinated by the movie business, it’s also a melancholy comedy of post-middle-age and the increasingly elusive illusion of power. Will it play in Peoria? Who knows...this could be the year for comic grief.