Movie Review: What Just Happened?
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
If relaxation were an automatic cinematic virtue, we'd have the comedy of the year in director Barry Levinson's "What Just Happened." Small, mild, easy to watch and easier to forget, this adaptation of producer Art Linson's Hollywood memoirs has the virtue of breeziness, and of Robert De Niro unwinding, after one too many tense performances, in the role of Linson's alter ego, a twice-divorced and multi-directionally frazzled movie producer. Yet you leave wanting more, and funnier.
Vincente Minnelli made a movie about moviemaking called "Two Weeks in Another Town." This is "Two Weeks on Another Planet" - Planet Hollywood. De Niro's Ben is up against it. His latest project, a pretentious drama titled "Fiercely," with shaky support from the higher-ups (Catherine Keener plays the steely studio head), is not smelling like money. At the latest sneak preview, the test audience gives it a 68 percent "Do Not Like" score. Then, zwooop, flashback: "What Just Happened" scoots through the two weeks leading up to this screening, which was supposed to pave the way to a triumphant world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Cannes portion of "What Just Happened" was partially filmed in Cannes. Linson adapted his own book, and he has some fun recycling some of his insider bits. One of Ben's crises involves Bruce Willis' facial hair: He must find a way to inform Willis (playing a volatile version of himself) that he must shave his Grizzly Adams beard or else he's off his new picture. (In real life, it was Alec Baldwin refusing, until the last minute, to shave for the Linson-produced "The Edge.") Some setups are very promising, such as the scene set at an agent's funeral, where mourning gives way to petty rivalries and suspicions among the mourners.
Linson neither goes for the jugular nor much of anything else, however, and while Ben's complicated personal and professional life has its fizzy potential, Levinson doesn't seem to want to push "What Just Happened" too hard. At times, with Ben whizzing around the L.A. freeways yakking on his phone, you're reminded of a Paul Mazursky film from the '70s - bitter, sweet, nicely observed, the protagonist a product of the Hollywood lifestyle and a wry observer thereof. I hope Levinson - whose "Diner" remains one of the great coming-of-age comedies of our time - explores this casual, on-the-fly atmosphere again. All he needs is the right story and a real screenwriter.
MPAA rating: R (for language, some violent images, sexual content and some drug material).
Running time: 1:50.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Ben); Catherine Keener (Lou); Sean Penn (as himself); John Turturro (Dick); Robin Wright Penn (Kelly); Stanley Tucci (Scott).
Directed by Barry Levinson; written by Art Linson; photographed by Stephane Fontaine; edited by Hank Corwin; production design by Stefania Cella; music by Marcelo Zarvos; produced by De Niro, Linson, Jane Rosenthal and Levinson. A Magnolia Pictures release.