What Just Happened? (7/10)

“What Just Happened” isn’t for those who don’t have an interest in how the movie business works. To outsiders, it has the possibility of seeming slightly tedious and pointless, but to people to whom this does appear fascinating, like me, it’s actually kind of an impressive little movie with some very good performances and a solid tongue-in-cheek tone that is very often brutally honest about the Hollywood system and how painful, unethical, frustrating, and downright wrong it can be.

Robert DeNiro plays the affable leading man Ben, a Hollywood producer who has nearly wrapped production on a new Sean Penn awards vehicle, “Fiercely,” and is about to start work on an upcoming Bruce Willis project as well. Throw in an ex-wife with whom he still shares a slightly close/awkward friendship, an overbearing studio head, and the self-important artistic drug addict director of the awards vehicle and you have what actually could believably be the life of a Hollywood producer, minus a few traits exaggerated for comic effect.

DeNiro lets down his gangster/bad ass cop hackles and thankfully turns in a performance that lets audience members relate to him as the plot follows a week in his life, from when he finds out he is going to appear in a “Vanity Fair” article about the 20 most powerful men in Hollywood to the time the actual photo-shoot takes place.

Directly Barry Levinson was wise in toning down the glitz and glamour usually associated with movie stars, shooting in a simple style that makes you feel like you’re having a bad, hectic and stressful week in your own life rather than that of a multimillionaire. The movie would have been a boring, “why should I care about these people” bomb that  directors sometimes fumble,  like Wood Allen’s “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” but instead Levinson is not afraid to show the Hollywood system for what it is: an endless, greedy, moneymaking machine, content to squash dreams and creative ambition left and right merely for the sake of a profit. (A key plotline in the movie hinges on Bruce Willis refusing to shave a beard he grew for a part – which he believes fits his character but which the filmmakers know will make it a box office bomb.)

It’s all pretty funny, too, not the laugh-out hysterics you might expect from a vehicle with about five + star appearances,  but a more honest kind of humor that rings true without seeming contrived. The story moves along with a few bumps here and there as some contrived elements occasionally pop up, but these are more often than not defeated by a script that refuses to take the easy way out – whereas usually you would expect a lesser movie to rekindle the relationship De Niro and his wife had, the relationship onscreen instead feels like a snapshot of everyday life.

The performances on the side are good enough to mention too, from Bruce Willis playing an obnoxious loud version of himself and having great fun while also grounding it in reality, to Catherine Keener relishing her role as the merciless studiohead ready to cut budgets, directors, and actors, as long as it means a bigger gross for the studio.

The movie ends on a note that will leave some viewers with the thought, “What DID just happen?” but in retrospect it’s difficult to see how it could have ended any other way.  It’s an ending that completes the character’s journey while not seeming artificially cut off or artistically edited to make it seem “profound” or “cool.” The movie business ain’t rocket science, ladies and gentlemen, Levison is telling us. They’re people, just like you and me, and just like you and me, they’re motivated by greed, power, and money. It’s questionable how the artistic process can survive such a cutthroat world, and Levison doesn’t give easy answers, but he does place some signposts here and there. He leaves it up to the viewer to figure it out, and dear reader, so I will do with you.

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