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What Just Happened

Hollywood makes another film about itself. Rachel Winterbottom watches it

Written by . Published on December 10th 2008.

What Just Happened

There’s no way of truly knowing, whilst making a film, whether people will react well to it. There are still a few things that are a dead cert, however, when it comes to losing your audience: gratuitous violence in a romcom, slapstick in a war drama, and, according to What Just Happened, shooting a cute dog in the head and splattering its brain matter all over the screen. Classic.

Based on the scriptwriter, Art Linson’s, memoirs (entitled Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line), What Just Happened treats its audience to two weeks in the life of film producer, Ben, played by a brilliantly subdued Robert De Niro. Perhaps ‘treat’ is not the right word as the end result is a bit like walking in on your MD while he’s on the toilet, only instead of balking at the intrusion, he tells you to pull up a chair.

The two weeks spanned by the film depict the interlocking nature of Ben’s business and personal life, both of which he mostly deals with via his hands-free kit. If he isn’t pussyfooting around juvenile director Jeremy Brunell, played by Canadian-born Michael Wincott channelling Sid Vicious, he’s trying to figure out who his ex-wife is sleeping with. All this becomes increasingly difficult when another film project threatens to derail because its star, Bruce Willis playing Bruce Willis with a Beard, turns up sporting full-facial bushery and a beer belly.

The intrusive nature of this film is illustrated to an almost uncomfortable degree by the shaky handheld camera and surreal visuals. The effect of which means you feel like you’re constantly looking over Ben’s shoulder, or hoping he won’t notice you’ve hitched a ride in his car. This invasive treatment is where the film excels. From artistic meltdowns to the unashamed flush of a toilet chain you hear at the end of a telephone conversation, What Just Happened artfully portrays a Hollywood where all its players have lost their dignity in the name of success.

Director Barry Levinson’s film easily scratches through the glossy Hollywood veneer, revealing egos so huge they require their own trailers, directors pumped full of drugs and the most powerful people in the business at the mercy of their leads’ latest tantrum. Shock horror – there’s backstabbing, sex with minors and colleagues who’d bitch about you at your funeral while texting their contacts and checking their emails. Catherine Keener exemplifies this attitude in her role as studio boss Lou Tarnow, who plays mother to her underlings, plying her ‘children’ with skittles, reassurances and drugs, anything to achieve the studio’s desires.

Despite the film being a satire, writer Linson has ultimately shied away from the razor-sharp memoir that held nothing back when it came to showing what Hollywood dreams are really made of. He instead provides an admirably honest, yet insipid, insight into himself through his character Ben. Although this isn’t hugely exciting, as far as voyeurism goes it’s the equivalent of watching the unedited 24 hour version of Celebrity Big Brother.

It is a clever film, but while you can appreciate its wit and self-mockery, you also can’t overlook the fact that it’s a bit dull. Covering all the ‘in-between bits’ of film production, Director Levinson also includes the driving in the car bits, the walking around bits and the having a brew and doing a crossword bits. He achieves that sense of degrading alienation and loneliness of the ‘true’ Hollywood lifestyle and with it sacrifices any real resolution. So much is left unsatisfied; De Niro is a ball of controlled rage, a ticking time bomb that reaches the end of its countdown and, instead of going kablooey, simply resets itself.

There are odd moments of humour, however black – John Turturro’s agent, Dick Bell, and his idiosyncrasies, Willis referring to his new beard as “artistic integrity” – but the film has a jaded edge to it. It’s bitter and dark, refusing to allow its audience much relief from the grim, disillusioned world it’s portraying, perhaps because as much as it resents the hand that feeds it, it’s ultimately resigned.

What Just Happened’s producers could have been really brave and put the results of the audience feedback from its own test screens on the end credits: 67 per cent of viewers wouldn’t recommend this to a friend, 42 per cent would like to know what just happened and 26 per cent of viewers were still upset about the dog…


What Just Happened (15) is on general release now.

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