What Just Happened (2008)


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Admittedly, the shooting of a dog in No Country for Old Men may have added to the brutal ambiance needed for the Coen Brother's allegorical depiction of a country that's "hard on people," in earning it the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, when it comes to mainstream cinema, putting two in the chest of a beloved family pet is hardly the way to win people over at a test screening. Hollywood producer Ben (Robert De Niro) learns this lesson the hard way in fake Technicolor blood as he watches his latest edgy film Fiercely-- directed by a British nail-polish wearing ticking temper-tantrum time bomb Jeremy (Michael Wincott) -- send audience members either fleeing for the exits or leaving scathing notes on his comment cards ranging from "my wife is still crying" to the one-worded question, "why?"

While Jeremy is just one of several characters in director Barry Levinson's hilarious adaptation of screewnwriter Art Linson's fictionalized and far more satirical version of his bestselling 2002 insider memoir who pleads "artistic integrity" the way most mobsters take the fifth in court, the bottom line is changes need to be made or the film will not only lose millions, further jeopardize Ben's dwindling "power credentials" but possibly end careers as well. Putting it bluntly, Catherine Keener's two-faced cutthroat studio executive Lou (another one of her fascinating creations reminiscent of her ball-breaking turn in Being John Malkovich), demands that either both Jeremy and Ben makes the changes or she'll take away the film and cut it herself. Although Jeremy is sent into hysterics and Ben's wise, young assistant is kicked out of the room when she suggests that the film's edge could've been the reason its star Sean Penn (appearing in the film as himself) signed on, Ben knows it is all part of the game. And it's the same game he plays twenty times a day at a breathlessly breakneck pace over fourteen hellish days that take him from La La Land to Cannes.

And throughout Levinson's film, Ben juggles his responsibilities as a devoted dad driving his children (from two marriages) to school, endlessly chatting away on his cell phone earpiece, trying to come to terms with his feelings for his soon to be ex-wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), massaging egos and holding the hands of his temperamental colleagues, hearing pitches at school drop-offs, listening to Morricone while stuck in traffic, or trying to figure out how to persuade Bruce Willis (also playing himself) to shave a beard for his role to maximize leading man sex appeal.

While it’s nowhere near the same league as Altman’s masterful film The Player-- as the latest in a long line of insider comedy/dramas, refreshingly What Just Happened is much more successful than this year's other Hollywood insider-comedy Tropic Thunder. And this is precisely because in making it a human story first and foremost, it also makes the situations both accessible and believable, without solely playing to only those well-versed in film industry knowledge.

Additionally, De Niro's quiet, contemplative and fascinatingly restrained character that always seems to be spreading himself far too thin marks one of the actor's best performances in years. Getting the chance to be both funny and endearing and never slipping into the caricature that helped propel the success of the Meet the Parents films, it's a wonderful change of pace for De Niro devotees such as myself (for proof click here) to see Bobby D playing the most level-headed one in the room when Bruce Willis pleads "artistic integrity" and trashes a room filled with costumes before stomping off to his trailer. As Linson noted in the press release, De Niro "instinctively knew that a man hanging over a ledge in Hollywood is desperately funny and true. He ferociously inhaled that idea and the rest of us followed," as his character tries to "hold his family together while navigating through," as Levin called it--- the Hollywood "battlefield."

Shot in just thirty-three days, the artistry of the film's look is quite impressive with fast-cuts, intriguing sound and visual cues, and the stunning photography of lensman Stephane Fontaine. Likewise it’s one of those films that seems as though it must've been as enjoyable to make as it is to watch as it's filled with what feel like spontaneous little touches by scene-stealing players like Wincott (truly one of the most hilarious people in the film), John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, and Bruce Willis (courageously playing the worst version of himself). Although initially, I feared it would feel like most indulgent Hollywood industry comedies where we're all showing up as extra guests at a party to which we really shouldn't have been invited (and film buffs instinctively get the impression of "who called who" when realizing the overlapping credits of those involved), upon the first viewing, it's an overwhelming whirlwind as we try to keep up with Ben's chaotic lifestyle.

However, during the second time around, I realized that despite its ridiculously jaded setting where a man's facial hair can put hundreds of people out of work, it's a great, artistic glimpse of a life lived at full-speed, under too much pressure like a bulb ready to burn out from overuse which is something to which most Americans multitasking during their waking hours can definitely relate --that is before our inevitable crash of however long we sleep before doing the exact same thing again. And while the great thing is that, unlike Ben's life, ours isn't spent under the microscope, it's nice to be able to laugh at the problems of the little things times ten magnified Hollywood style, whether it's in the over-the-top bravura performance of Jeremy or in some truly great, organic humor between Robin Wright Penn and Robert De Niro as they attend a couple's therapy where the ultimate goal is to keep them apart as opposed to bringing them together.

While What Just Happened is used as both a question by Wright Penn in the film in a throwaway line near the end (and honestly makes for a lackluster title destined to be forgotten once the film ends), it also seems to be the name of Ben's game in explaining to everyone what just happened regarding any given situation, no matter how unbelievable it is. And as the film careens into an overly long yet terrifically unpredictable windup, it will most likely have you going over what exactly happened during your drive home. Just don’t forget to pack the Morricone but maybe—unless you want to end up in soon to be ex-couple’s therapy-- leave your Bluetooth earpiece at home.

Read the Book that Started it All & More from Art Linson

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