Harper's magazine Editor Russell Lynes once said, "Every journalist has a novel in him, which is an excellent place for it." That adage should be adapted to include filmmakers and Hollywood satires. Most veteran moviemakers could probably do a showbiz spoof, but that doesn't mean they should, especially when such films as Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels and Robert Altman's The Player set such a high standard.
Art Linson definitely qualifies as a Hollywood mover and/or shaker, having produced films for three decades before writing What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line. Linson's fictionalized script of his memoir, What Just Happened, casts Robert De Niro as Ben, Linson's big-screen alter ego, and reunites De Niro with his Wag the Dog director, Barry Levinson. But where Wag the Dog found laughs by pointing out the showbiz aspects of politics, What Just Happened seldom puts teeth in its portrayal of showbiz.
What Just Happened follows Ben as he labors to finesse several impossible predicaments. His latest film, a violent, high-brow drama starring Sean Penn called Fiercely, has horrified test-screening audiences with a dog shooting in the final scene. Catherine Keener's steely studio executive demands that Fiercely lose the scene to make it more commercially palatable, but the pretentious British director (raspy-voiced Michael Wincott in Keith Richards gear) throws tantrums at the thought of compromise.
Ben's upcoming project proves equally benighted, since star Bruce Willis shows up on the set wearing a Grizzly Adams beard. The explosive shouting matches raise intriguing questions like, "Does Willis' frequent willingness to portray himself as an a-hole suggest that he's more or less likable in real life?" (According to Linson's book, a similar beard-shaving stand-off erupted with Alec Baldwin during the action film The Edge's production.) Meanwhile, Ben wants to reconcile with his second wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), even though he's not above bedding the ambitious hotties who come onto him at fancy restaurants. But when Ben discovers a strange sock in Kelly's bedroom, he wonders if she's having an affair with a smarmy screenwriter (Stanley Tucci).
Ben's visits to test screenings, editing bays and movie star trailers don't necessarily make for gripping sequences, but Levinson and Linson show that they know their way around cinematic storytelling by keeping the subplots clear. The narrative threads all rely on simple, tangible objects like the dog, the beard, the sock, etc. In a framing device set at a group photo shoot for a Vanity Fair magazine "power" issue, Ben frets that his placement in the picture indicates his status in Hollywood: the farther from the center, the less power he has. A final plot twist at the Cannes Film Festival proves completely implausible, however, and undermines the rest of the movie's sharp details.
Hollywood satires frequently portray producers and dealmakers as slick, transparent phonies, and John Turturro practically drowns in his own flop sweat as an agent with gastric problems. De Niro typically plays serious, substantial men – sometimes to a fault – and Ben comes across as a reasonably thoughtful, honest businessman who's above superficial salesmanship or silly trends. But De Niro plays the role with such equanimity that it's hard to sympathize with Ben. He conveys minor agita, not anxiety over his livelihood or passion for his art. A storyline involving a funeral doesn't provoke much self-reflection in Ben, so What Just Happened never seems to have much at stake.
I'm going to suggest one measure for judging a Hollywood satire: Does it leave you wanting to see the fictional film-within-the-film it dramatizes? If not, the L.A. story probably doesn't qualify as a success. If you care about the characters, you'd be curious to see the film they make, whether it's a hit or a train wreck. Some Tinseltown tales make their fake films actually sound good. I'd like to see most of Vincent Chase's, from HBO's "Entourage," big-screen work (especially James Cameron's Aquaman). What Just Happened leaves you completely uninterested in Fiercely and the rest of Ben's work, even if you could order it from an imaginary Netflix.
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