Bad movies beget worse ones. That’s the lesson of What Just Happened, a behind-the-scenes Hollywood spoof from Barry Levinson, director of the unbelievably overrated Wag the Dog. At least back in 1992, Levinson’s script was by David Mamet, someone with few ideas about film industry venality and how to construct political satire. Now Levinson’s way past politics. Dying his hair Dark Hipster, Levinson exalts the casual corruption of his profession—just like his hero-producer Ben (Robert De Niro) dyes his graying chest hair.
Ben tries to convince a hotshot young director to alter his movie after a disastrous test-screening before it premieres at the Cannes Film Festival. In addition to getting wrong the proverbial Hollywood shibboleths (about violence, pets, etc.), Levinson and screenwriter Art Linson fake concern over selling out when everybody knows it is the way of things: Our tabloid media specializes in celebrating it.
Problem is, after The Dark Knight, how can you outrage already cynical moviegoers? Every joke in Tropic Thunder, The Player, The Muse, I’ll Do Anything, even HBO’s Entourage is sharper, more incisive and funnier than those in What Just Happened. De Niro looks handsome in a yarmulke when Ben goes to a funeral commemorating a filmmaker named “Jack Gregory Levine McDonaugh,” but that’s very Inside. Ben’s concern over a stubborn star (Bruce Willis) refusing to shave his Grizzly Adams beard is especially ho-hum because Willis’ own career is ho-hum. The same lack of excitement comes from Catherine Keener’s casting as a cranky studio exec who despises Ben’s groveling. De Niro shows the human truth of a rich loser but Levinson and Linson don’t know what it’s worth.
Amidst the film’s fatuousness and torpor (Levinson still can’t direct), I counted two good lines: A careerist asserts “I’m not just some silly girl in tight clothes, I went to Stanford!” and a competitor tells Ben: “You’re just a producer; you’re just the … mayonnaise in a bad sandwich!” Why does Levinson, who chose to be a Hollywood producer, approve a line like that? Because he harbors the “Not me!” delusion that indicts others. Anyone who sees this movie without reading this review will repeat the title endlessly.
What Just Happened
Directed by Barry Levinson, Running Time: 107 min.
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