What Just Happened?
The opening 55 minutes of Barry Levinson's What Just Happened? is an engaging Hollywood satire about the fast-tracked fall of a Hollywood producer's stock after a disastrous test screening of a new Sean Penn film. DeNiro plays the producer who spends most of his time juggling ex-wives, megalomaniac film types, powerful studio heads and his small but eager staff. The film reunites Wag the Dog director Levinson with lead DeNiro and for a time they seem to have rediscovered the magic of their 1997 pairing. Unfortunately the air leaks out of this project in the third act and what's left (other than a very aptly-titled movie) is an accidental satire about a satire about the film industry.
Notwithstanding a couple of ticklish self-lampooning turns by the likes of John Turturro, Bruce Willis and Stanley Tucci, What Just Happened? just isn't all that funny (or perhaps more damningly, all that insightful). After a promising start, the film just doesn't go anywhere and the whole affair ends up feeling self-indulgent rather than revealing. Its release on the Tuesday following the Oscars isn't unintentional but the film misses it's mark because it takes the whole tinsel-town thing far too seriously. Had Levinson taken the source material (real-life producer Art Linson's brief, episodic memoir) and really had a go at it, we might have got something worthy of a quasi-sequel to Robert Altman's wonderfully sardonic dissertation on Hollywood, The Player. If ever a film needed a reworking by David Mamet, it's this one. Instead, the film ends up reconfirming what the acerbic Oscar Levant once said “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you will find the real tinsel underneath.”