What Just Happened?Directed by: Barry Levinson Cast: Robert De Niro, John Turturro, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci Time: 1 hr 53 mins Rating: R
Plot: Robert De Niro stars as a once prominent Hollywood producer whose life is spiraling out of control while his career similarly falls from grace. We spend two weeks with him as things go from bad to worse, to better… one too many times.
Who’s It For? Those of you with a sweet tooth for ironic Hollywood satire, made by the same people their particular film is poking fun at, will love the punches What Just Happened? lands throughout.
Expectations: While De Niro’s career has been on a much-talked-about downslide, it seems to be the perfect vehicle to resurrect his own recent shortcomings. Perhaps a film as self aware as this one can shed some light on why even great film actors (or producers) can fall on consistently hard times after years of apparent invincibility.
Actors: Robert De Niro as Ben: Gone is the slicked back hair of a tough guy we’re used to seeing pull punches rather than dodge them. De Niro may have learned the character of Ben simply by paying attention to the world that surrounds his own super-stardom. While it’s impossible to declare he’s a good mimic, its predominately apparent Ben’s shell has its soft spots. He does a sufficient job in not seeking too much sympathy from the audience, as well as grappling for our hearts strings without coming across as desperate. Score: 7
John Turturro as Dick Bell: Turturro’s resume includes a slew of eccentric characters few others could have pulled off. Dick Bell is no different. He represents the tackiness of Hollywood agents right down to the bow tie, and faux (perhaps) stomach ailment that occasionally renders him virtually incoherent. He makes the most of his rare scenes by not allowing us to forget how flat an agent can be when trying to convince anyone who would listen otherwise. Score: 7
Bruce Willis as Himself: While it’s difficult to objectively judge an actor portraying himself, it would be unfair not to give Willis props for trying to make himself more interesting. Though it’s refreshing to see such a macho movie star poke fun at his rumored on-set persona, Willis doesn’t bring any memorable flare to his own self-parody. Aside from consistently showing his Male Diva side by breaking things, all we get is a perpetually hung over performance of grumbling through lines and getting in the way of the story. Score: 4
Stanley Tucci as Scott Solomon: Ever the ill-tempered character actor, Tucci holds back as Solomon, a screenwriter trying to woo Ben into going for his movie idea about a florist with a heart of gold. Aside from bedding Ben’s ex-wife, his character rarely plays a pivotal role throughout the course of the film. I know, it sounds like that should be a big deal, but there is so little contextual evidence that their relationship is anything more than passionlessly consenting adults to give a damn whether or not Ben eventually (a) finds out about it, or (b) gives his script the green-light. Score: 5
Talking: Much of the Hollywood lingo is hard to follow, and rarely explained. Nevertheless, a few one-liners strewn throughout the otherwise middling dialogue tickle a funny bone otherwise ignored. It’s all deadpan. There were no serious attempts to lighten the mood with wisecracks, and even when De Niro mugs for the camera, it’s difficult to generate anything more than a smirk. What should have been great about this film was missing from the subtext that never bubbled below the conversational surface. Score: 4
Sights & Sounds: For whatever reason, there is a certain transitional choppiness added to various moments that take more away from the film than provide for it. Maybe this was a cutting floor decision to spice up the otherwise unexciting storyline, but it doesn’t matter—it didn’t work. People keep attempting to find new and intriguing ways to try and spruce up LA, and this is just another film that comes up short in doing so. Meshing the soundtrack of the film Ben produces into the actual film we’re watching is a nice idea, but you’re too frustrated with the story to give a damn. Score: 5
Best Scene: Watching Willis intimidate De Niro until he backs down and apologies is a nice twist. You actually see him shake a little once Bruce’s bearded alter ego breaks him. This is one of the few redeeming scenes in a film that provides little memorable onscreen moments.
Ending: We’re left wondering what’s going to happen to Ben now that he’s “changed.” The crazy thing is, it doesn’t seem like he’s changed at all, and we don’t really care. I liked the ending in the Sean Penn film-within-a-film better—even though we aren’t shown any other scenes from it. That’s got to say something about how indifferent an ending the actual film gives us at its conclusion.
Questions: It’s like a film without a genre. It’s not really a drama, or a comedy. Many will call it a satire, but aren’t these types of films supposed to blend the two aforementioned attributes in creatively intriguing ways?
Rewatchability: Once is enough. Trust me.
OVERALL Levinson means well in directing this, that can be sure. It’s just a shame he didn’t clean up the plot by giving his characters more to fight for. Then again, in a world as topsy-turvy as the one we find in Hollywood, maybe that’s the whole point. Despite engaging in ceaseless cell-phone-based conversation, De Niro tries in vain to hammer this point home, but his efforts end up sadly pointless. Everything from his two failed marriages (the most worth watching with Robin Wright Penn’s “Kelly,” which earns the films only real substance), to his suddenly failing career possess too little substance to garner any knee-jerk reaction from the audience. What we’re left with is a film that is at times adequate in its cross-examination in the soulless Hollywood Industry, but never appropriately engaging.
Final Score: 5/10