All in a day’s work for Robert De Niro’s movie fixer, Ben. In the bruising world of egos and economics, Ben has to turn a test-screening turkey into a money-making movie. But with the Cannes film festival looming, can he survive the whirlwind of tantrums and demands and deliver a movie that pleases everyone? And amid it all, can he salvage his failing family-life?
What Just Happened? is written and produced by Robert De Niro’s mate, Art Linson. Based on Linson’s real-life experiences as a Hollywood movie producer (Fight Club, The Edge), it’s a semi-fictionalized account that fizzes with fast-paced humour and pathos.
De Niro featured in the book – playing hard-to-get when Linson wanted him for the action drama, The Edge. The role went to Alec Baldwin. But Baldwin refused to shave his bushy beard and blew up when Linson dared to demand it. In the movie, De Niro has to persuade Bruce Willis – playing himself – to shave his rhododendron of a beard, with explosive and expletive results.
Happily, Linson’s a better screenwriter than his book would suggest and director Barry Levinson (Rain Man) lends an almost poetic touch. With Stanley Tucci (as a rival movie producer and would-be lover of Ben’s former wife) and John Turturro, it’s a class act.
Sean Penn also pops up as himself, playing the star of a movie with bad-taste ending which threatens to sink the studio. The test-screen audience reaction is one of the film’s funniest scenes. But while the biggest gags involve outrageous behaviour – the best thing about What Just Happened? is the unexpected poignancy.
De Niro plays it appropriately straight – as the one sane man in a world of power-play egos. And Levinson cleverly keeps the tension alive – will the film float or flop? When you think you know, you don’t. And as De Niro clings to his humanity, while hoping to be reckoned as a producer with influence, you feel for him.
De Niro’s done a lot of comedies in recent years – Wag the Dog, Meet the Fockers – and did an outré cross-dressing cameo in Stardust. But What Just Happened? is different - a comedy where the payoff comes from De Niro’s dramatic strengths.
Doing for the movie-scene what The Devil Wears Prada did for the fashion world, What Just Happened? plays on the peverse personalities and politics that populate the industry. But this is less of a crowd-pleaser and offers instead an acerbic insight into cinema itself.