If you're a ravenous movie nerd like me, than there's very little in Barry Levinson's "inside baseball" Hollywood movie What Just Happened? If, on the other hand, you don't know a whole lot about studio politics, the angst of test-market screenings, and the tricks that movie-makers (or, more specifically, movie-sellers) will pull just to get a festival screening and a huge opening weekend, then you'll most likely get a whole bunch of chuckles out of the flick. To those who know about this stuff all too well, the comedy should still make for an interesting enough diversion -- thanks mainly to a massive, colorful cast and a few solid jabs that hit Hollywood right in the kisser.
Based on producer Art Linson's book What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line, the film version tells the story of one very successful Hollywood producer, and the ways in which he juggles multiple professional crises, as well as some prickly domestic issues at the same time. Robert De Niro is our movie producer, doing his best "sly" comedic work since (probably) Wag the Dog. John Turturro is the archetypal agent: skittish, shifty, and packing a nasty ulcer. Stanley Tucci is the writer who needs our protagonist for professional reasons, but pursues his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) for other activities. Michael Wincott is the drug-infested director whose ultra-edgy film is being mangled by horrifying studio boss Catherine Keener.
Toss in some supremely amusing "self-mocking" performances from movie stars Bruce Willis and Sean Penn, and you've got the makings of a flick best described as "movie geek heaven." And while What Just Happened? is by all means a colorful and generally pretty funny expose of modern-day Hollywood, it often feels like Levinson and Linson (he also penned the screenplay adaptation) are content to preach to the choir. It's meant to be outrageous and unbelievable how art turns into pure commerce, but there have been plenty of Hollywood satires that demolish the "test screening" mentality, the "beleaguered producer" conceit, and the oh-so-cynical insinuation that Hollywood has no integrity whatsoever. So while much of the material in What Just Happened? is insightful and accurate ... it's just not all that new or shocking anymore.
The massive cast yields a few high-end standouts: As the ever-whining auteur director, Michael Wincott is undeniably hilarious (and has the flick's best line), while the always-great Robin Wright Penn adds a welcome dash of wealthy-yet-domestic reality as DeNiro's confused ex-wife. I'd also mention that John Turturro is very amusing in his role as Bruce Willis' ever-nervous agent, but really: When is John Turturro NOT good? (Seriously.) For their part, Bruce Willis and Sean Penn seem to be having a whole lot of fun as they poke fun at their own movie-star images: Penn makes a great off-hand comment about airplanes and cigarettes, and Willis (well known for being anything BUT a prima donna) roars through the film as a fictional version of Bruce Willis, one that refuses to shave his massive "Grizzly Adams" beard and maintains a seriously nasty temper.
For all its jabs at a clearly cash-obsessed Hollywood, What Just Happened? is not all that venomous of a satire. The finale throws a few clever zingers at Keener's clueless studio chief character, but ultimately What Just Happened? has little to say besides "Boy, Hollywood sure is a two-faced and devious place to work!" As if we didn't already know that by now. As a gimmick-style farce, it works just fine, packed as it is with so many funny performances -- but as a satire it's a fairly toothless affair. Mr. Linson still does a lot of business in Hollywood, don't forget.
But really, how many times will you get to see Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, and Robert De Niro work together? (And in a comedy, no less.) That combo alone is probably worth the price of admission -- or most definitely a DVD rental fee.