Waiting for the latest Robert De Niro film for me has become not unlike Seagal fans waiting for their favourite star's latest bad DTV release. He is getting older, picking the wrong movies and not really giving himself to the roles. De Niro has definitely started on the twilight years of his career, making his money more with comedy sequels than his serious vehicles, rarely showing anything of his former self in the last decade - the last few top notch offerings including 1995's double-header of Casino and Heat and arguably 1998's Ronin. Righteous Kill taunted fans by reuniting the supposedly unstoppable Heat team of Pacino and DeNiro but turning out to be a career low for the both of them. But off the back of it we got this, a satirical look at the Hollywood movie-making industry which, somewhat surprisingly, received positive feedback on DeNiro's capabilities. What Just Happened?
Ben is having the toughest two weeks of his career as a movie producer. Caught between the omnipotent Studio execs and the director and actor divas he has to manage, he is finding it hard to appease everybody. Things are worse at home, with a messy second separation fuelling arguments, distance growing between him and his kids and hints of 'adultery' thrown into the mix, and Ben - whilst trying to cope with it all - knows that his whole world is about to fall apart. Will his diva director edit his latest movie to make it more marketable? Will Bruce Willis shave his 'Moses beard' for his latest action vehicle? And will his (ex-) wife ever accept second place to Ben's marriage to his all-consuming, 24-7 job?
Based on the real-life memoirs of Hollywood Producer Art Linson (who produced the studio-botched Dick Tracy and the vapid Nikita remake Point of No Return aka The Assassin, as well as the aforementioned modern classic Heat and the excellent Fight Club) and directed by Barry Levinson (the man behind another solid satirical offering from DeNiro, Wag the Dog, and the poignant Good Morning Vietnam), What Just Happened is a biting, scathing look at what really goes on behind the closed doors in Hollywood. We have all heard the rumours about just how dictatorial the Weinsteins can be, or the behaviour of such famous icons as Sean Connery and Scarlett Johannsson on set, and it seems obvious from the writer's own film history as a producer that the fictional representations made in the movie are merely 'name change' versions of what has clearly truly happened in the real industry. Risky as it may be, DeNiro and his team have crafted an insightful - and accessible - look at their own business, and the reality is strangely compelling. The tension built over whether or not Bruce Willis will exit his trailer clean-shaven is akin to the alternative set-pieces exhibited in standard thriller vehicles - an achievement to say the least.
Although we're talking really dark humour here, the movie gains much of its entertainment value through intentional laughs, normally at the expense of the beguiled central character. And, in this, DeNiro has created one of his most sympathetically amusing personas, simply defining self-control as he wades through a mire of angry clients and demanding bosses, his blue-toothed mobile phone almost becoming an appendage on his body. It may not be a performance that makes up for his lacklustre by-the-numbers Righteous Kill offering, but it makes a dent in the debt owed, and allows us some room for hope with respect to the upcoming Michael Mann-directed Frankie Machine, which he is now attached to. He brings with him an entourage of famous faces as well - Being John Malkovich's Catherine Keener as a despotic studio exec, Barton Fink's John Turturro on eccentric form as Bruce Willis' troubled agent, the underrated Stanley (Big Night) Tucci as a competing producer, Unbreakable's Robin Wright Penn (Sean's wife) as DeNiro's beleaguered wife, The Crow's Michael Wincott as a diva director and both Sean Penn and Bruce Willis as themselves (Willis exhibiting a fictional propensity for throwing hissy fits about having to shave). It's an all-star cast and they do well to come together to provide a convincing portrayal or what it feels to be a cog in the giant Hollywood machine.
What Just Happened may not be a masterpiece but it is still a solid, thoroughly enjoyable satirical work. All credit given to the cast and the filmmakers on board to give us this because - to be honest - it is actually quite brave considering that they were potentially defecating exactly where they, erm, earn their cash. The end result may not be Oscar-worthy, and may not actually change anything, but as with any decent satires (Buffalo Soldiers, Dr Strangelove, Team America), it opens up to a broader audience the realities of what goes on behind the scenes - the raw, brutal and often painfully hilarious truth. Entertaining, funny and worth a watch.
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