What Just Happened? opens Friday throughout the Triangle
Sixteen years ago, Robert Altman released The Player, in which the director reclaimed his mainstream filmmaking cred by making a Hollywood film that sticks a thumb in the eye of the studio system. It is the same blueprint that the immensely less talented Barry Levinson attempts to follow in the wearying What Just Happened?
But, instead of replicating Altman's satirical construct, Levinson settles for a similar protagonist, a producer that again copes with a temperamental British filmmaker, a pivotal funeral scene and the casting of Bruce Willis.
Whereas The Player's behind-the-back-lot intrigue is backdrop to a primary plot, What Just Happened? is all inside baseball. Film-industry people scratch their heads over why a colleague would commit suicide since he had just become a "10-percenter." The film's bookend scenes detail how a Hollywood power broker's current professional prominence can be measured by where and beside whom he must stand during a magazine photo shoot with his competitors.
Saying this film is as exciting as watching someone yammer all day into a Bluetooth earpiece is an actual statement of fact. Robert De Niro plays Ben, the aging producer who, after chasing his morning joe with Red Bull, ping-pongs between ex-houses owned by ex-wives in order to steal a few seconds of QT with his several children. From there, it's back to the headset and trying to salvage two movie projects, and with them his career. The first is an artsy Sean Penn vehicle whose hopes of opening the Cannes Film Festival are jeopardized by violent test-audience reaction to the film's bleak ending, in which a dog is shot in the head and its brains splatter onto the fourth wall. Ben tries to walk a tightrope between the film's touchy English director (Michael Wincott) and a ball-busting studio head (Catherine Keener, who played a role like this in Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal). Meanwhile, studio bosses threaten to pull the plug on Ben's other film after its star (Willis, playing himself and off his reputation for difficulty) refuses to shave his bushy beard.
To say that this is De Niro's best performance in years reveals far more about the shortcomings of his recent roles. Indeed, Ben's character would have been better served by a smarminess exuded by, say, Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks rather than De Niro's latter-day languid aura. Instead, What Just Happened? feels as edgy as an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm if it was written and directed by Peter Bogdanovich.