“That’s a good school”
Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened made me ponder that exact question as I walked out of my screening. Sadly, the answer I settled on was: not much. I think Robert De Niro’s producer Ben said it best when being completely honest with Stanley Tucci’s screenwriter about his new florist-set script—“it’s not a movie”. That is exactly what I would have said when this script was green-lit to become what it now is. No disrespect to Art Linson who adapted the screenplay from his own comic memoirs because I really do want to read the book. I think a week in the life of a producer could be a great read; the inner struggles and the hectic schedules, however, it falls completely flat cinematically. I was bored by this film start to finish. It had its moments of laughter, but more often than not, the joke was either cute/obvious or went on way too long, (John Turturro and his not stomaching the pressure of being an agent, I’m talking to you). It’s a shame because I was really looking forward to this tell-all tale of a high-powered money manager behind the scenes of a movie. Unfortunately I just got the equivalent of a reality tv show following our lead around from meeting to meeting, only less interesting because I knew all of this was scripted.
The jokes are all exactly what you would expect. Anyone who has ears knows about the tabloid rumors and the debauchery going on in Hollywood, this film does nothing to shed light on anything new. I would understand if the film was completely tongue-in-cheek with some biting commentary on the industry, but it truly is just a normal week. “Entourage” does a better job with similar subject matter even though every season is pretty much a reworked story arc of the one before it. No one really wants to see Ben going from movie to movie, studio to studio, wife to wife trying to keep a handle on his life. We have our own troubles without the bankroll allowing him to have the comforts while bartering and negotiating for a living. If anything, I may resent the life even more now because these spoiled brats just don’t care about anyone but them. I’m sure Sean Penn and Bruce Willis thought they were sending themselves up in great humor and satire; however, it was more them actually playing their real life selves. Maybe that is a credit to them as actors, but it was a detriment to my interest in the movie. I wanted bombast and only got controlled outbursts.
De Niro’s Ben is running around, juggling his business with his personal life, trying to get the money where it needs to be while also finding time to drive all his children to school—from both failed marriages. He deals with the no-nonsense studio heads, the prima donna actors, the eccentric drug-induced directors, the alimony loving ex-wife, the on good terms ex-wife, the grateful children and those growing up way too fast, the agents who can’t handle their clients, and the young aspiring actresses trying to sleep their way into a film. Pretty much every cliché you can think of is here onscreen, just brief enough to come and go before another takes its place. Hey, clichés are clichés because they happen. I’m not belittling the factual integrity of the story; I’m just questioning the use of tired plot points in a film that is attempting to be engaging.
The thing that really didn’t work for me, though, was the cinematography. Levinson has his DP shooting the entire thing in close-up, with what seems to be a hand-held camera. I can appreciate the juxtaposition of jumpy/shaky visuals to stand in for the chaotic lifestyle and high blood pressure Ben must be experiencing, but it is overkill here. It all feels as though they are trying to be Tony Scott with his MTV-style cutting and over-produced motion sequences, however, Scott’s use of the technique is always planned and carefully orchestrated. With What Just Happened, it seems as though the photographer just shook the camera and the editor just sped the film up to look “cool”. I don’t even know what happened at one point when we are watching De Niro go to his car from his house and then the screen cuts from house to car and back and forth again through time. We understand the trick being a way to show the cyclical nature of his work once we see him in the car over and over again at different moments towards the end of the sequence. It’s the moving him back in time, at the start, to the house after we know he was in the car that was just confusing and unnecessary.
Through it all is some nice acting, however, so it’s not a complete loss. De Niro doesn’t quite phone in the performance, as he is known to do of late. He has some nice moments with his more recent ex, played nicely by Robin Wright Penn, and with Tucci in a few comedic encounters. I liked Moon Bloodgood as the actress trying to sleep her way to fame and the Middle Eastern (I think) co-producers who got their money from hair and dry-cleaning. The real star truly ends up being Michael Wincott, a kooky character actor that has been away for too long. Everyone’s favorite Sheriff of Nottingham plays the crazed director trying to get his film at Cannes with the cut he deems appropriate. He is so over-the-top that his is the one role firing on all cylinders. He knows the score with the hyper-reality going on and he hams it up to stellar effect. Anytime he and Catherine Keener share screen time meant I genuinely had a smile on my face. Unfortunately they weren’t in view for too much of the movie.
What Just Happened 4/10 | ★ ½
 Robert De Niro, John Turturro and Stanley Tucci in Magnolia Pictures’ What Just Happened? (2008) Copyright © Magnolia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Catherine Keener stars as Lou and Robert De Niro stars as Ben in Magnolia Pictures’ What Just Happened? (2008) Copyright © Magnolia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.