One can't fault most of the performances in What Just Happened?. John Turturro doesn't make a false move as the comically agitated, furtive Hollywood agent with one bitch of a stomach ulcer. Stanley Tucci does a nice job playing a slick screenwriter who, happily devoid of scruples, butters up the producer (Robert De Niro) while screwing the producer's wife (Robin Wright Penn). The studio boss from hell is fully realized by Catherine Keener. And Michael Wincott is quite amusing as a druggy Brit director, given to whining and convinced he is an edgy auteur when in fact he's just talent-free. But regrettably, fine snippets of acting cannot lift Barry Levinson's jaundiced view of Tinseltown beyond being an interesting conceit that ultimately falls flat. Is it satire? Is it dark farce? Either way, it's not especially funny or insightful or original, unlike Levinson's wickedly clever Wag the Dog. There is nothing new here about nasty Hollywood politics and the amoral backbiters who fill the ranks. A big problem is De Niro, who is usually terrific but in this oddball flick seems to be sleepwalking. Perhaps his drowsy manner is intended to evoke a sly and subtle performance. It doesn't. Whether he's enraged, panicky, or just plain aggravated — he's aggravated a lot in this one — lethargy enters the equation. One almost suspects he agreed to be in the movie as a favor to pals Levinson and writer-producer Art Linson.
Based on Linson's hard-nosed memoirs, What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line, the movie recounts the experiences of a no-longer-youthful producer grappling with a disintegrating second marriage, troubled kids from his first and second spouses, and a series of wild disasters as he tries to complete his incomprehensible blood-splattered flick. The insider references — from the importance of test-market screenings and acceptance in major film festivals to hoopla on the red carpet — are simply not that gripping. Self-mocking cameos by Sean Penn and Bruce Willis don't help, nor do they further endear the actors to the viewer. Willis is particularly annoying as a screaming actor who indulges in tempter tantrums. Enough said.
Director: Barry Levinson
Written by: Art Linson
Starring: Robert De Niro, John Turturro, Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci, Robin Wright Penn