"Who is Hollywood making these films for anyway?"
You know how if you time-travel, and you and yourself ever both end up in the same room, the fabric of the space-time continuum will tear? Similarly, if too many familiar Hollywood faces appear in one movie ... well, the consequences usually aren't good. And when celebrities imitate their own lives, the odds don't often get much better.
But all superstition aside, Barry Levinson's What Just Happened? (based on producer Art Linson's memoir by the same title), is yet another purported satire of the movie-making engine by movie-makers. This time, it brings audiences with it to work to glimpse the daily grind behind the big screen. Only it's not Papa Movie Star who's taking the uninitiated kiddies to the office, it's Papa Producer, an underappreciated cinematic role that prima donna Bruce Willis (as himself) mocks as being merely the "mayonnaise" in the movie sandwich. Essential, hardworking — albeit unappreciated — mayo that spreads its savory magic on whatever part of the sandwich needs it. In this case the sandwich sections that require producer Ben's (De Niro) attention include the ending of his latest film, Fiercely: test audiences weren't crazy about man's best friend getting mangled by bullets and Willis's refusal to shave his Grizzly Adams beard a few days before shooting his next picture. The film frames speed up as we watch De Niro zoom around town, driving from one hectic encounter to another, including frequent and awkward visits to see his recent ex-wife (Wright-Penn) whom he still pines for.
Beyond the occasionally frenetic camera work and occasionally explosive encounters, however, there are a fair amount of lulls in this tragicomic tale of a fading producer's life. From the perspective of a studio outsider, Levinson's backstage pass is educational and intriguing, but the laughs are lukewarm. They heat up a bit with Keener's ball-busting portrayal of a studio exec, the aforementioned beard crisis, the creative ways test audiences let producers know when their film sucks, and a Rushmore-like instant of tender animosity when De Niro thinks he's spotted the sock that slept with his wife. The latter and other similar scenes owe much of their appeal to De Niro, whose captivating and oft poignant portrayal of a producer under constant fire is the mayo, shall we say, that holds What Just Happened? together. Yet, this softer side is also what makes the story lean more towards sentimental sitcom than stinging satire. Think less glam and testosterone than Entourage, though not quite as hilarious and heartless as The Player.
Let's just say you might not see Levinson swing any hard and unexpected punches. There are no moves here you haven't seen before in a movie-biz satire. I say "you" because, then again, perhaps What Just Happened? is primarily an inside joke. And you could be an insider that gets it. Or, if you live and work outside the magical motion-picture kingdom you might miss more subtle industry jabs. Of course, that begs the question, Who is Hollywood making these films for anyway? I wonder.