Robert De Niro plays Ben (yes, just "Ben"), a producer trying to balance his work while juggling a messed-up life involving two ex-wives and kids to go with them. Ben has two big deals in the works: one is a Cannes entry entitled, "Fiercely," starring Sean Penn (as himself), directed by indie filmmaker Jeremy Brunell (a superb Michael Wincott). We only see snippets of the cruel and violent ending scene of "Fiercely," which the producers insist should hit the editing floor. Jeremy takes it badly, promoting tension between producers and himself. The second deal is an action picture starring Bruce Willis (as himself). Here, the dilemma is that Willis, contrary to all advice, has put on weight and grown a Grizzly Adams beard, adding extra girth for his concept of the role then refuses to shave his beard.
The movie takes on a real soap opera formula, but the actors nail it scene by scene. The quick and intelligent dialogue lends dark humor to real-life normalcy. There are all kinds of cliché-ridden things almost venturing into the inane, but with an even-keeled approach the film manages to keep it interesting. There's a bit of fun-filled tension to see how Ben's two endeavors turn out. A scene with the group waiting outside of Willis' trailer to see if he has complied with the beard shaving has all the nuances of a reality TV show. There's also some nail-biting during the premiere of the newly edited "Fiercely" at Cannes.
It's nice to see De Niro carry a movie flawlessly and to his credit is believable among actors playing themselves. Penn and Willis clearly had a blast making fun of their on-screen personas. Willis goes all out as a hot-tempered, unapproachable, spoiled, A-list movie star prone to exploding rage and tantrums. John Turturro shines as wimpy agent Dick Bell, so terrified to confront Willis that he contracts a stomach disorder, retching in between sentences. Catherine Keener (Lou) phones in her uber-producer role, but fits in just right, as does Stanley Tucci as the writer Scott Solomon who's doing the sex-romp with De Niro's ex, Kelly, solidly played by Robin Wright Penn. Wincott proves once again to be the mercurial chameleon embodying the screwed-up British director succumbing to drug abuse and rage.
Director Barry Levinson (Rain Man/Diner) is no stranger to Hollywood dealings and uses inventive camera work and quick edits, never letting it get boring to watch.
There will be inevitable comparisons to Wag the Dog (another De Niro/Levinson collaboration), wherein De Niro was the political strategist and Dustin Hoffman the disposable producer. But by hitting on Hollywood themes, this movie comes off like a watered-down version of Robert Altman's The Player. Actually, the film it most resembles is Mistress (another De Niro film) about a low-level writer and producer seeking funds for an independent flick.
The most intriguing thing to me is how a film with a thoroughly negative viewpoint about how movies get made...itself is made. I get the feeling that writer Art Linson, also a real-life producer (Fight Club) and director (Where the Buffalo Roam) wanted to get the story out, in a non-threatening way, that in the world of corporate wheeling and dealing, it's still all about winning. By imploring a nonchalant take on dark comedy, this movie conveys that if you don't pay attention and play by the rules, you'll have to take a back seat to the action or disappear entirely. You may end up saying to yourself, "Wait a minute, things were going so good... what just happened?" Words to live by...or maybe words to avoid. You be the judge.
What Just Happened ★★★✩✩
Starring Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, Stanley Tucci, Catherine Keener, Robin Wright Penn, John Turturro. Directed by Barry Levinson. Rated R.