In its satiric, film-within-a-film narrative, What Just Happened aims to demonstrate how great movies get made despite the commercial pressures and venal personalities of Hollywood. Instead, the film-based on producer Art Linson’s memoir-will probably persuade most movie fans that the filmmaking process, like sausage-making, is best left unexamined if one is to enjoy the final product. The viewer is also left wondering how a picture with so many talented people attached to it could fall so flat.
The film follows two weeks in the life of Ben (Robert De Niro), a producer whose clout is waning, as he battles a studio head (Catherine Keener) over the downbeat ending of one of his projects, and struggles to save another film by persuading its star (Bruce Willis, playing himself) to shave the thick beard he’s grown. We see Ben attend a funeral and take his kids to school, but none of that can hide his essential egocentrism. Ben’s trying to finish these films not to achieve an artistic vision, but so he can go to the Cannes Film Festival and retain his place in the industry pecking order. He subjects himself to an amusing therapy session with his second ex-wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn) not because he misses her, but because he’s jealous that she’s sleeping with a screenwriter (an underutilized Stanley Tucci).
There are precious few characters here for viewers to connect with, making Ben’s “where are they now” voiceover epilogue somewhat pointless. The movie is not nearly as funny as it should be; Adaptation and The Player (another inside-the-industry tale featuring Willis as himself) both satirized Hollywood to greater comic effect. The film does include humorous performances by John Turturro as Willis’s terrorized agent, driven to severe gastrointestinal distress by his client’s intransigence, and Michael Wincott as a director who throws tantrums when his artistic integrity is compromised. But-call me stodgy-for a film that purports to skewer the soul-sucking nature of the film industry, turning these characters’ drug dependencies into a running joke seems tasteless, especially coming in the same year as Heath Ledger’s death.