The subtext of What Just Happened, a fictionalised film drawn from Art Linson’s memoir, is that writer-producer-director Barry Levinson has slipped slightly off the A-list. He used to see-saw between Baltimore-based personal projects (Diner, his first feature as writer-director, remains his most achieved film work, though his most substantial contribution to the media may be as the man behind the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street) and Oscar-bait middlebrow hits (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam, Sleepers, Disclosure), but for nearly twenty years his highest profile films have tended to sink, whatever their merits or failings (the tipping point was the officially ‘disappointing’ Bugsy in 1991, but the catalogue runs to Toys, Jimmy Hollywood, Sphere, Bandits, Envy and Man of the Year). With a track record like this, it’s easy to see how Levinson might empathise with Ben (Robert De Niro), the Linson stand-in, who is still hot enough to rank among the 30 most powerful producers in Hollywood but edged to ‘the outside of the P’ in the Vanity Fair photo-shoot to commemorate the meaningless list – studio head Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener, smoothly loathesome) who outranks him throughout the film is under the radar enough not to be included at all.
In tone, the film is closest in the Levinson oeuvre to Wag the Dog, the low-budget, in-joke/gag cameo-filled politics/showbiz satire in which he also prodded DeNiro into giving one of his increasingly rare proper acting performances (as opposed to riffing on his own image or backlist). In the weeks leading up to the Cannes film festival, Ben has to cope with the fall-out from a disastrous preview screening of his latest film, Fiercely, directed by erratic Brit Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott, very funny) – it ends with the hero (Sean Penn) being shot dead and, at least in the director’s cut, the baddies also gunning down his faithful dog. Meanwhile, Ben meets with shady financiers (there are rarely any other kind in movies or movies about movies) on another project, tries to bully a terrified agent (John Turturro) to get Bruce Willis to shave off a gross beard (an anecdote which originally related to Alec Baldwin) so a ready-to-go film won’t be cancelled, has jealous paranoid spasms about an ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) he can’t let go of who is dating a screenwriter (Stanley Tucci) behind his back, and attends the funeral of an agent who has committed suicide — and whom he didn’t realise was involved with his teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart).
A lot of the material is obvious, but well-done: Ben keeps putting his personal life (and calls) on hold to deal with trivial but epochal crises, thus estranging people he notionally cares about; the infallibly hilarious business about audiences being more upset by bullets in a dog’s head than Sean Penn’s (in drama, killing a dog is a no-no, but in comedies it’s an automatic laff riot, cf: National Lampoon’s Vacation, Anchorman, Theater of Blood, etc) and Ben’s wavering between commercial, career and artistic concerns over this issue. The thread about the dead agent, presumably based on CAA burnout Jay Moloney, is underdeveloped, and pales beside the more deeply-felt channelling of this anecdote in Bernard Rose’s similar, but cheaper and less cuddly inside Hollywood horror story ivansxtc. Despite DeNiro’s fine work, it’s really truly hard to sympathise with the protagonist, whose ultimate humiliation comes when the studio’s private jet leaves from Cannes without him. The point of the story might be that his rich man’s worries are absurd, but the film still pleads for him as if he were, say, the downtrodden office cleaner in Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses (another Los Angeles film), and most audiences will find caring about him harder than seeing a dog’s brains blown out on screen.