What Just Happened (2008) Movie Review

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Title: What Just Happened
Year: 2008
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Play time: 1h 44min
Director: Barry Levinson
Screenwriters: Art Linson
Starring: Robert De Niro, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Stewart, Bruce Willis

    “They shot the dog in the head.”

What Just Happened is all About Gauging the Audience

Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened is inside baseball. How inside baseball? It opens at a test screening. If you’re in the movie business or you follow it, you know all about test screenings; you’ve probably been to some. You know about the demographically calibrated audiences, the too-happy publicists, the all-important comment cards, and the hand-wringing and nail-biting that often ensues. Does the average moviegoer know? Does even the average intelligent and informed moviegoer?

Famous Names in the Cast

You see what I mean. This is a film that stars Robert De Niro, Stanley Tucci, Robin Wright Penn, John Turturro and Bruce Willis (as himself), and yet the audience for it is infinitesimally small. I hesitate to recommend it to viewers who aren’t hardcore current film buffs. If you do fit that description, you might like this problematic, funny, somewhat insightful Hollywood satire.

The test screening is for a new movie from a veteran producer, known to us only as Ben and played by De Niro. Supposedly it’s a quality movie, made by a maverick director (think Tony Kaye on more drugs) and starring Sean Penn, who only signed up because it was art, man. It ends with an adorable dog being shot in the head. (“My wife is still crying, you bastard” reads one of the comment cards.)

The studio head (Catherine Keener, delightful) is having none of this, and orders Ben and his director to recut the film or she will do it herself. The director goes off the deep end. Meanwhile, Ben is on the verge of a divorce — his wife (Robin Wright Penn) may or may not be sleeping with a fellow producer (Stanley Tucci) — and his new movie has ground to a halt because Bruce Willis is overweight and won’t shave his beard.

An Obvious Art Film Parody

What Just Happened‘s best insight has to do with the difficulty of making a good film in the studio system. No one is interested, and filmmakers are left hoping that their tough, gritty tendencies will accidentally appeal to teenage boys who will find the whole thing funny. Levinson undercuts this somewhat by making the Director a loon, and by making the movie itself an obvious art film parody — his point would have been stronger, and the satire more bracing, were the movie-within-the-movie actually worth fighting for.

Funny Moments

That actually gets at the main problem with What Just Happened, which is that it goes madcap when it should have stayed deadpan. Bruce Willis throwing furniture is very funny, I admit, but I’m not sure where the Director’s hopped-up flipping out gets us. The film’s funniest moments are often the softest — watch for Ben’s reaction when a colleague pitches a movie about a florist.

De Niro gives an expert, layered performance, and you might see the movie just for Bruce Willis’s hilariously self-effacing turn as a crazed version of himself. This might be Barry Levinson’s strongest directorial effort since Wag the Dog (though Bandits would give it a run for its money). It’s esoteric, and its audience is small, but if you’re part of it, you know who you are.

What Just Happened is an Adoption From Art Linson’s Memoirs

By the way, the film is adapted from veteran producer Art Linson’s memoirs. The beard incident really happened — the actor was Alec Baldwin, and the film was The Edge.

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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