Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sundance Reviews: What Just Happened?

Posted By on Wed, Jan 23, 2008 at 9:10 PM


(United States, 2008, 107 minutes, color, 35 mm)

Directed by Barry Levinson, written by Art Linson

Starring Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci and John Turturro

I have this theory about Robert De Niro, and it goes something like this: Use only in case of emergency. That's not to say Bobby can't do any film he wants. He deserves that option. But when it comes to films like What Just Happened?, it's like Michael Jordan joining the Harlem Globetrotters.

It's fun to see him there, but you just can't get over feeling that he needs to be playing at a higher level.

That may be my biggest criticism of What Just Happened?. In a film stacked with a marvelous cast that lives up — or in Bruce Willis' case, surpasses — expectations, De Niro assumes the role of captain for a ship that runs just fine on its own.

De Niro plays Ben, a languishing Hollywood producer juggling a pair of ex-wives, children with both, a titanic embarrassment sailing into Cannes and bearded, fat Bruce Willis, which becomes more of a problem than you might think. Ben is constantly on the move and never able to escape the world of problems swirling around schedule, but we can only handle them one at a time.

First up is Michael Wincott's fabulous portrayal of Jeremy, an emotionally unstable, recovering substance-abusing director with a potential bomb heading into the Cannes Film Festival. Ben's charged with changing the ending, which is polarizing and painful, depending on how you look at it.

The director wants to keep his cut intact, but the studio won't stand for it. Ben is left to deal, but most of his attention lies with his most recent ex-wife. The pair is seeking counseling to ease the transition into separation, a fun concept and one of the film's bright spots.

The strength of the movie comes from its performances, but the story seems to languish at times. There’s fine resolution that is diluted with what appears to be an extra 20 minutes of footage director Barry Levinson just decided to throw in at the end. You just want the movie to end. It’s not annoying, necessarily, but it feels wrong.

What Levinson and writer Art Linson do well here is keep us entertained. The übertalented cast is given a wealth of material to feed off of and therefore deliver. Wincott is quirky and fun. Willis – who plays himself – is uniquely not Bruce Willis. Stanley Tucci could wander into any film as far as I’m concerned and be fine, and John Turturro finally gets a make-good for being in Transformers.

I did like De Niro is this role, but I really felt like it was more me liking Robert De Niro than me liking the role. The film has received mixed responses at the festival, but that may not matter. Was it worth watching? Yes. Is it up to the same level as its Sundance peers? Not necessarily, but it is a movie you’ll enjoy, with performances alone worth talking about.

Rating: B -


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