'What Just Happened': Reeling, By Kurt Loder

Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Bruce Willis do Hollywood.

The trouble with movies about Hollywood weaselry is that they have to be made by the weasels. Nevertheless, some of these films have sharply captured the scheming, trashy energy of the place ("The Bad and the Beautiful") and its ego-grinding emotional sadism (about half of "Swimming With Sharks"). And Robert Altman's 1992 "The Player" — made by a born outsider in exile from the industry at the time the picture was shot — really nailed it.

"What Just Happened," the new Barry Levinson movie, resembles "The Player" in some ways. The main character, Ben (Robert De Niro), is a harried producer; there's a mad English director named Jeremy (Michael Wincott) who strongly recalls the mad English writer played by Richard E. Grant in Altman's film; and of course everybody in the movie lies a lot. But "The Player" had a story — a mean, memorable one. Levinson's picture is a little light in that department, which is understandable: "The Player" was scripted by the acidulous Michael Tolkin, from his own novel. "What Just Happened" is based on a 2002 memoir by veteran producer Art Linson ("Fight Club"). So while Altman's movie had a dramatic structure, this one is basically a procession of incidents; there's no resolution because there's not a whole lot of story to resolve.

Still, the picture is very funny in parts. It has a light, shaggy charm, and De Niro is at his most winningly comical, whether fretting over his placement in one of those Vanity Fair "power people" photo shoots ("It really matters") or deftly fending off a writer pitching an unlikely script about a florist ("It's the Rose Bowl Parade meets 'The Da Vinci Code,' " the scribe says). Ben has two major headaches on his hands. One is Jeremy's movie, a Sean Penn vehicle with the all-purpose title "Fiercely," which is scheduled to open the upcoming Cannes Film Festival. Unveiled at an audience test screening with studio suits in attendance, "Fiercely" concludes with a scene in which not only is Penn (playing himself) gunned down, but his loyal little dog is then shot dead. (We see this from close behind the pup's head, with mutt blood splattering the camera lens.) Studio chief Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener) notes the appalled reaction in the screening room. "We're gonna lose a lotta money," she says.

Then there's Ben's Bruce Willis film. Willis (also playing himself) is being paid $20 million to lend his famous face to this picture, but when he shows up to start shooting, it's hidden behind a big bushy beard — and he refuses to shave it off. (The real-life incident in Linson's book involved Alec Baldwin.) And this Willis is such a raging horror that his jittery agent (John Turturro) is too terrified to confront him.

Amid all this, Ben is also sparring with his ex-wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), who's apparently sleeping with some screenwriter, and protectively obsessing over his 17-year-old daughter, Zoe (Kristen Stewart): When she shows up in tears at the funeral of a recently deceased agent, he realizes his little girl had been boffing the guy. (The funeral scene is reminiscent of "The Player," too.) Can life get any more exasperating? You bet.

De Niro is wonderfully wry in a scene in which Ben and Kelly attend a counseling session: The emotionally-stunted Ben, squirming and muttering and tossing off little whispery one-liners, is so tormented by the shrink's demand for intimate details that he'd rather be anywhere else — maybe even sharing man-hugs with the ferocious Willis. And Willis is funnier here than he's been since, well, "The Player" (in which he also offered up a version of himself). Addressing a roomful of mourners at the funeral, he looks around sourly and says, "I see so many people here I'd rather be eulogizing." Even Sean Penn unpacks a little-seen sense of self-deprecating humor: Reminding a studio exec about the upcoming flight to Cannes, he says, "Did you work out the G5? I gotta smoke on the plane."

The picture is a bit disjointed. There's a sequence with Ben and a hot young actress (the fabulously-monikered Moon Bloodgood) that could've been dropped with no loss; and the scenes at the end, when Ben arrives in Cannes, feel tacked on. But all of the actors involved seem to be having such a good time, you want to go along with them. And when the movie hits its peaks, you can't help joining in.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "Filth and Wisdom," "Max Payne" and "Moving Midway," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "What Just Happened."

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