What Just Happened (2008): Barry Levinson’s Hollywood on Hollywood Satire, Starring Robert De Niro and Bruce Willis

Cannes Film Fest 2008 (Closing Night)–Despite a superlative cast, headed by Robert De Niro and Bruce Willis, among others, Barry Levinson’s new comedy, “What Just Happened” is a disappointingly familiar insider’s movie, a Hollywood-on-Hollywood satire that lacks biting humor or novel ideas.

Producer Art Linson (“The Untouchables,” among others) has adapted his book of the same name (with the subtitle, “Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line”) about his experiences as a shrewd industry maven. Though based on authentic source material, an account of Linson’s day-to-day existence as a studio producer, the film feels too cautious and too kind–and not original or distinctive enough to distinguish itself from the rest of the bunch.

In moments, but only in moments, “What Just Happened” is a personal, detailed, and even touching tale, benefiting from the presence of De Niro, who gives a sharp performance in the lead, and an impressive supporting cast, comprised of name actors, such as John Turturro, Catherine Keener, and Robin Penn Wright.

Suspicion that something was “strange” with the picture, which debuted at the World Premieres section of the 2008 Sundance Film Fest, spread as soon as it was disclosed that the high-profile feature had been sold internationally but has no American distributor. The decision not to show the film to the press before Sundance might have been conscious on the part of the producers and sales reps–it’s often done to increase suspense and the market value of the property.

The press screening I attended was packed due to the curiosity factor and the lack of distribution package. Theatrical prospects for a major deal are iffy for a movie that was financed by 2929 Entertainment, the company that had made James Gray’s “We Own the Night,” which Sony picked up out of the Cannes Film Fest last year (and overpaid for it, judging by box-office results).

On one level, with this film, helmer Levinson adds a panel to a growing body of films about Hollywood, including his own, far superior satires, “Wag the Dog” (1997), boasting an Oscar-nominated performance by Dustin Hoffman and co-starring Robert De Niro, and his earlier “Jimmy Hollywood” (1994), with Joe Pesci as a would-be actor-dreamer who becomes famous by playing an urban vigilante named Jericho.

There’s always been a danger in making a Hollywood picture about Hollywood for a number of reasons. First, the subject is awfully familiar due to the increasing number of films-by now, it’s actually a sub-genre–including Robert Altman’s 1992 nasty but entertaining “The Player,” Blake Edwards’ “S.O.B.,” not to mention classics like Vincente Minnelli’s sublime 1952 noir, “The Bad and the Beautiful,” and trash like “The Oscar” (1966).

Not surprisingly, as time goes by, movies about Hollywood have become seedier, sleazier and nastier, reflecting the zeitgeist within and without the movie industry. Additionally, the subject has been spoofed by Christopher Guest in “The Big Picture,” and more recently, in “For Your Consideration.” (Spoofs and parodies often indicate that the conventions of a particular genre have been overused, if not exhausted).

As a result, in its text, characters, and jokes, “What Just Happened,” like other films, whether told from the inside or outside or inside-outside, rehashes similar motifs seen in vintage Hollywood flicks of yesteryear. That the film comes across as gentler and kinder than its predecessors is both surprising and disappointing.

Linson’s scenario is uneven, lacking many poignant insights that might have given the satire teeth and guts. And while “What Just Happened” boasts a largely cynical tone, it lacks sharp irony. As directed by Levinson, the satire is occasionally mordant, but seldom piercing in its depiction of a man, presumably at the top of his game, whose life consists of wheelings and dealings with prima donnas, insane artists, shameless egotists, and impossibly demanding wives, past and present.

The saga relates the personal, social, and professional lives of Ben (De Niro), a producer caught in a rush of activity, simultaneously trying to complete a contentious post-production on a Sean Penn action-adventure while beginning a new production on a Bruce Willis flick.

The first, rather funny scene is quite promising. After a test screening of Penn’s picture, the viewers are angered by the movie’s harsh ending, which involves the politically incorrect act of killing of a dog.

In essence, the story highlights that the road for a Hollywood producer is always rocky–or at least never mundane or dull. In due course, Ben must pacify both his director, a temperamental Brit named Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) and fight interference from the nervous studio chief (Catherine Keener) who demanding changes before the film heads to the glitziest and most influential global arena, the Cannes Film Fest.

Willis’ film also turns out to be a trying nightmare, due to its egotistical star, who appears late, just before principal shooting begins. He’s also in bad shape, being overweight and wearing an ugly beard that he stubbornly refuses to remove. When Ben’s appeals to the star’s agent, Dick Bell (John Turturro), he’s turned down.

The yarn then proceeds with piling up personal problems on top of the professional ones. Ben’s private life (if there is such a thing) is marked by two divorces, and insensitivity (what else) to his teenage daughter Zoe (Kirsten Stewart) and second wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn).

Occasionally, the movie shows flashes of humor. The movie shows the sharp stratification that prevails in Hollywood, such as the mode in which a younger exec is rudely dispatched from a room, or Ben’s reaction to being humiliated by a Vanity Fair reporter.

In the prosaically titled “What Just Happened,” most of the protags are second-hand, and it feels as if the narrative were made of old samples-swatches. The filmmakers’ observations are never truly sardonic or particularly revelatory for anyone familiar with showbiz. Vacillating between the serio and darkly comedic, the nave and the cynical, the movie never finds the right tone to deliver its few punches or balance the real, the surreal and the utterly absurd.

Every profession has its share of outlandish behavior, and showbiz is fabled as an industry where behind the-scenes stories are often more fascinating than the productions. Ultimately, Linson and Levinson may have wanted to say that, as a setting for a tale about power, glamour, and life at the top, Hollywood may not be more extreme, cruel, or bizarre than other professional milieus (Wall Street, banking, publishing), that maintaining one’s dignity is difficult everywhere, not just in Hollywood.

Sadly, like Rob Reiner’s, the career of Barry Levinson, once one of Hollywood’s most reliably commercial helmers, has taken a turn for the worst, as evident in a recent streak of artistic and commercial flops, including “Bandits,” “Man of the Year,” “Envy,” and “The Hairpiece.”

End Note

As a veteran attendee of the Cannes Film Fest, I have to report that he movie’s reconstruction of the pompous, hectic, and crazy ambience of this unique locale seems surprisingly off-and quite inaccurate.


Ben – Robert De Niro
Lou Tarnow – Catherine Keener
Sean Penn – Sean Penn
Dick Bell – John Turturro
Kelly – Robin Wright Penn
Scott Solomon – Stanley Tucci
Zoe – Kristen Stewart
Jeremy Brunell – Michael Wincott
Actor – Bruce Willis


A Tribeca/Linson Films production from 2929 Prods.
Produced by Robert De Niro, Art Linson, Jane Rosenthal, Barry Levinson.
Executive producers, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban, Eric Kopeloff.
Directed by Barry Levinson.
Screenplay, Art Linson, based on his book “What Just Happened: Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line.”
Camera: Stephane Fontaine.
Editor: Hank Corwin.
Music: Marco Zarvos.
Production designer: Stefania Cella
Art director: Anthony D. Parrillo.
Set designer: Kristen Davis.
Set decorator: Roya Parivar.
Costume designer: Ann Roth.
Sound: Steve Cantamessa.
Supervising sound editors: Philip Stockton, Eugene Gearty.
Re-recording mixer: Tom Fleischman.

Running time: 112 Minutes.