Film Producer Ben (Robert DeNiro) is having a bad week. His latest film, directed by a mercurial, temperamental, egotistical British director (Michael Wincott) and starring Sean Penn has a disastrous test screening. The next morning, Lou (Catherine Keener), the studio head, calls Ben and his director for a meeting. When the director throws a tantrum, Ben assures Lou they will make the requested changes in time for the Cannes Film Festival. His wife (Robin Wright Penn) is happy to continue going to a therapist, to help make it easier for them to break up. But Ben thinks she might be sleeping with a writer (Stanley Tucci) he knows. Then, Bruce Willis reports to work for Ben's next film overweight and wearing a beard he refuses to shave. Throw in Willis' scared agent (John Turturro) and you have an eclectic cast of characters.
Directed by Barry Levinson ("Wag The Dog", "Diner", "Babylon"), "What Just Happened?" written by producer Art Linson and based on a book he wrote, is very funny. But it is also way too 'inside' to make inroads to multiplexes across the country. I am pretty positive most people will end up seeing this film on DVD or cable. Most people aren't familiar with a lot of the inner workings of Hollywood. Most people won't like this film. Because they don't care.
If you have any connection to Hollywood, you will probably find "Happened?" to be as funny as I did.
Robert DeNiro and Barry Levinson have traveled this path before with the superior "Wag The Dog", a better, more insightful political satire that also starred Dustin Hoffman, among many others. I think the key difference between the two films is that "Dog" was a political satire, something everyone could care about. When Hollywood makes films about itself, they generally are received well in Los Angeles and New York, maybe San Francisco and Toronto. That's about it. That's about the extent of the audience for these films, the extent of the people who will care, understand and laugh at a film poking fun at Hollywood.
Hollywood is certainly an industry rife for ridicule, but most people simply want to go to a film and forget. They don't care about temperamental producers who struggle to hold on to their Vanity Fair power ranking, actor outbursts beyond the various tabloids and entertainment news programs, or studio bosses concerned about how a film plays in the flyover. The majority of the country is the "flyover", so why would they bother?
"What Just Happened?" is based on a book by Art Linson, who writes about his own travails working in the industry. Linson is a respected producer and has made more than his share of good films, memorable films, so he clearly has insight into this industry. And this comes across throughout the film.
Ben attends a test screening of his new film, starring Sean Penn, in a suburb of Los Angeles. We see snippets of the film and get to watch the reactions of the people recruited for the screening. As the various people react poorly to the increasingly horrific film, Ben winces and tries to make the best of it. When he receives the response cards, he stashes them on the passenger seat of his luxury SUV and heads home, determined not to look at them. But his curiosity gets the better of him and he pulls over, leafing through the written reactions and threatening drawings. Both of these scenes are very funny, because they appear real. I have been to bad test screenings, I know people who hang on every word of the reactions of these recruited audiences. The situation is funny and true.
But does the public care? No. They simply want to see the next "Iron Man" or "The Dark Knight" or "Tell No One". They don't care about the inner workings of the machine creating these fantasies, these illusions.
As Ben rushes through his day, you get a picture that this powerful producer spends little time in the office. He travels from one meeting to the next, meets with both of his ex-wives, takes kids from both marriages to school, chats with associates and more. The Bluetooth in his ear isn't just an accessory. It is a necessity. He is always connected and when an Assistant tells him he has to go to the set, he rushes over.
Bruce Willis and Sean Penn both play themselves and seem to have fun poking fun at the very industry that keeps both very rich. Willis appears on set overweight, sporting a Grizzly Adams beard, both of which will do nothing for his image as the hero in Ben's new action film. Ben pleads with him and finally loses his temper. Willis throws some things around, scaring everyone and they come to an impasse. Penn appears in Ben's just completed film and the director stands by his guns, refusing to change anything, because Penn will be upset. He only agreed to be in the film because it was going to be edgy and controversial.
But Ben is, above all, a problem solver. When he recognizes Lou isn't going to budge, he realizes he has to talk the director into making the changes, to appease the studio boss and ensure his continued career. When a studio worker shows up to measure his office, an Assistant claims it is for the rug he requested, but Ben recognizes the signs and gets scared. Besides, he requested the rug more than nine months ago, so it seems suspicious that after a bad screening they are suddenly measuring his office for the new rug.
When he finally gets through to the temperamental director, he seems satisfied and reports to Lou who extends an invitation for Ben to accompany them to Cannes on the company plane. Of course, the trip doesn't go as planned.
These sequences help to paint an interesting, knowing portrait of the inner workings of Hollywood. Linson has clearly had or seen these types of problems and dealings and makes them believable for us. Ben's every minute seems to be a new choice, some of the choices he is able to make, others are made for him and he either has to accept them or attempt to change them. But with every minute comes the possibility that Ben's life could be changed for the better or the worse. Which might explain why he is always nervous and on edge.
The performances in "Happened" are good and add to the overall fabric of the story. But I have to ask again; will most people even care about this film? Will they flock to a theater to see it? Will they even enjoy it when they have the opportunity to watch it on DVD or cable? I don't think so. For this reason, "Happened" falls short of "Wag The Dog" and it's more universal message and story.