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With: Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, Kristen Stewart, Catherine Keener, Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn, Michael Wincott, Moon Bloodgood
Written by: Art Linson, based on his book
Directed by: Barry Levinson
MPAA Rating: R for language, some violent images, sexual content and some drug material
Running Time: 107
Date: 01/19/2008

What Just Happened? (2008)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Production Askew

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For the second time in his career, Robert De Niro plays a movie producer losing his way in soulless Hollywood. The first time was in Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon (1974), an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's final, unfinished novel. The new one, What Just Happened?, is a lightweight comedy directed by Barry Levinson. Though it would seem to fly in the face of everything sacred, I like the new one better. Kazan's rigid directing tried to make something bigger out of the first film, while Levinson's loose direction allows the new movie merely to comfortably exist.

Producer Ben (De Niro) must maneuver his way through three major problems (and several smaller ones) over the course of a few sunny, Los Angeles days. A finished Sean Penn movie has tested badly and he must convince the headstrong, "gritty" Aussie director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) to recut. Then, a big-name actor (Bruce Willis) has appeared on set grossly overweight and wearing a "Grizzly Adams" beard. Since the actor has a big ego and an even bigger temper, Ben tries to get the actor's lily-livered agent (John Turturro) to do the convincing. (Willis seems to enjoy playing parodies of himself; this one goes hand-in-hand with his hilarious turn in last year's Nancy Drew as well as in The Player.) Ben also discovers to his chagrin that his soon-to-be ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) is sleeping with a screenwriter (Stanley Tucci), even though he still loves her and hopes to get back together. Kristen Stewart co-stars as Ben's daughter who has been participating in some surprising activities as well, and Catherine Keener gives yet another rock-solid comic performance as a ballsy studio head.

De Niro navigates all this with a calm demeanor, though his thoughts almost always seem to be somewhere else; this gentle distraction makes him wonderfully sympathetic. And Levinson (who previously worked with De Niro on Sleepers and Wag the Dog) refuses to point fingers or satirize the industry; he merely floats through the days and allows things to be as they are. It's as laid-back as any Hollywood movie about itself has ever been. It's based on a book by real-life producer Art Linson (who also co-produced here), and apparently, these events are only slightly changed from those that took place around the production of The Edge (1997).

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