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What Just Happened?

Having recently read the book What Just Happened? by Hollywood producer Art Linson, I was naturally intrigued to find out that a movie based on the book was about to be released to theatres.  (Albeit rather under the radar, as no one I know of has heard of the film.)

Well, the film What Just Happened (without the question mark that was in the book title), directed by Barry Levinson, was indeed released last month.  It stars Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, Catherine Keener, and Ribun Wright Penn.  And it’s directed by Barry Levinson, who helmed Diner, Good Morning Vietnam,  Rain Man, and Wag the Dog.  With such talent behind and in front of the camera, it’s somewhat disappointing to realize that the film is just mediocre.

The book What Just Happened? takes place over the course of several years in the life of Art Linson, during which he worked as a producer for 20th Century Fox and produced one bomb after another.  (Not intentionally, mind you!)  The film What Just Happened takes several of the best stories from the book and works them into the fictionalized tale of a week in the life of Hollywood producer Ben (DeNiro), trying to stay afloat as he deals with weasely agents, egomaniacal stars, and his own personal problems. 

There is certainly fun to be had in the film.  DeNiro is great, as always.  He invests Ben with a certain good humor and even — dare I say it? — some dignity.  He’s just a lot of fun to watch, as he subsumes the tough-guy persona he’s so often played on screen beneath Ben’s schlubby skin.  (I could almost imagine the part being played by Woody Allen.)  And Bruce Willis is a riot in the Alec Baldwin role.  While producing The Edge, Linson had a famous enounter with Alec Baldwin who, though he had been cast as the young hunky photographer in the film, showed up overweight and with a mountain-man beard that he refused to shave.  Well, no surprise, that conflict is a central one in the film, and the scene where De Niro confronts Willis is a gem.

But the movie isn’t quite the laugh riot I was expecting.  Levinson has often demonstrated as strong an interest in the dramatic storylines in his films as with the comedic elements.  In his best work, he’s able to balance the two to produce something really powerful.  Here, the drama and the comedy don’t quite mesh.  There are long stretches of the film without much to laugh about, but those dramatic stretches didn’t have the impact that I’d imagine Levinson intended, at least not for me.  I never became emotionally invested in Ben’s struggles.  

It’s certainly an interesting film — its rare to see a “suit” as the hero of one of these “inside Hollywood” movies.  And there are a lot of interesting performances.  (Every member of the great supporting cast listed above does strong work.)  But there’s nothing particularly memorable either.  I enjoyed seeing it once, but I doubt that this will be a film that I revisit often.

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