Wag the Dog was great political satire starring Robert DeNiro and directed by Barry Levinson.
What Just Happened, which reunites DeNiro and Levinson, is also a political film that happens to be set in Hollywood, where one box-office mistake can ruin a career and reputation. And you thought Washington, D.C., was tough.
Where Wag the Dog offered broad laughs, however, What Just Happened offers superficial irony best appreciated by those in the film industry. It's a movie about Hollywood for Hollywood, with little mainstream appeal.
Based on the book, What Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line, by Art Linson, who also penned the script, What Just Happened is the story of self-absorbed movie producer Ben (DeNiro), whose A-list career is one misfire away from demotion to the B or even C team. Ben is fighting the fiercely independent director of one of his films, who refuses to agree to the studio's request that the movie's ending, in which a dog is shot in the head, be altered to a more audience-friendly conclusion.
Ben is also battling Bruce Willis, as played by the actor, a selfish, egocentric actor whose refusal to shave his "Grizzly Adams" beard for a starring role puts the film's production into jeopardy. So Ben desperately appeals to the Willis' agent, Dick Bell (a wickedly funny John Turturro), for help, but to little avail.
As bad as Ben's professional life is, his personal life is even worse. Once divorced, he is separated from his second wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn) though he's still in love with her. They go to counseling to learn how to live apart successfully, but they still fall into bed with each other from time to time. It's obvious Ben hopes things will work out between them, until he begins to suspect Kelly is sleeping with an industry friend.
Linson, whose many production credits include The Untouchables, Fight Club, and Into the Wild, is certainly qualified to have an insider's view of Hollywood, and his story is probably more accurate than many in Hollywood would care to admit. Nevertheless, that didn't deter many top names - Stanley Tucci, Kristen Stewart, Catherine Keener and even a cameo by Sean Penn - from joining in the fun. Hollywood does love to poke fun at itself; however, the question remains: Does anyone else really care?
Levinson is a gifted director with a keen eye for staging smart comedies. But What Just Happened is too industry smart for its own good, and is only occasionally amusing beyond its insider humor.
The behind-the-scenes examinations of Hollywood are interesting enough, but certainly not revolutionary: a studio exec is interested in a film's financial success; the film's director is interested in artistic success; the film's producer is caught in the middle. Throw in the usual commentary on the Hollywood lifestyle of therapists, vanity, and egos run amok, and What Just Happened offers little new to discuss or provoke smirks.
For those who prefer their humor large and with a populist appeal, the comedy will most likely come across as a tedious exercise in elitist entertainment.
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