The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'What Just Happened?': Hollywood from the inside

July 30, 2008 |  6:00 am

Writers are always taught to write about what they know, so it probably wasn't such a bad idea for producer Art Linson to write "What Just Happened?," a droll comedy about--what else--the life of a frazzled Hollywood producer. Directed by Barry Levinson and starring a bestubbled Robert De Niro as Linson, the film is chock full of real incidents from Linson's producing life, including the time Alec Baldwin, about to star in the David Mamet-written "The Edge," reported to work with a Moses-style beard, prompting a production crisis. (In the movie, the Baldwin character is played by a furry-bearded Bruce Willis.)

"What Just Happened?" debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it got a very mixed reception. It also went to Cannes, where the reception was a little better--Variety's Todd McCarthy called it "intermittently amusing." But it never sold. So the film's financier, 2929 Productions' Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, are having to release it themselves in October through their Magnolia Pictures distribution arm.

Etwhatjusthappened I'm a huge fan of Linson, as past stories will attest. But when I mentioned that the movie had gotten a grim reception at Sundance in the course of a column about De Niro and Al Pacino's career decline, Art reacted badly--meaning I got yelled at. That's OK. The movie is clearly Linson's baby. He's not just the writer-producer, but cast it with old pals like De Niro (Linson produced him in "Heat") and Sean Penn (Linson produced Penn's "Into the Wild"), who plays, well, himself. The film also features Catherine Keener as a tough-as-nails studio chief, John Turturro as a wildly neurotic agent and Stanley Tucci as a duplicitous screenwriter who's sleeping (in the movie) with Linson's ex-wife.

Colorful expletives aside, Linson said my description of the film's Sundance reaction was unfair and I should see it for myself.  So now I have. Did I unfairly prejudge it? Or is Art too close to the film to be objective? Here's my take:   

If Art and I had been in the ring, I'd have to give him a split decision. Not a knockout, but a victory nonetheless. De Niro is completely up for the part--in fact, he's one of the best things about the movie. Sly and understated, he neatly captures the low-grade depression that must grip most producers, who spend far more time putting out fires sparked by ego and insecurity than solving real filmic issues. One of the film's great moments finds De Niro lurking in a men's room after a rocky screening of his Sean Penn-starring film, eavesdropping on the casually cruel remarks of various industry insiders. He also has to wrestle with a drug-addled British director--adorned with Keith Richards'-style earrings, tattoos and head scarves--who throws a wonderful tantrum when given a fix-the-ending ultimatum by the studio chief.

There are lots of other nice pieces of business, from a riotous showbiz funeral to the telling shot of the poster of the current blockbuster hit in the studio lobby--no star names, no director, just an oversized number quantifying its box-office performance. The movie also nicely illustrates something Linson once told me: "In this town, your character is measured by how you handle defeat, not success." De Niro's character is an unhappy man, emotionally distant from his family, with no visible friends, forced to grapple with childlike actors and half-crazy filmmakers, worried about his status in the power-list pecking order, desperately trying to keep his latest projects from imploding--in short, the real world of a Hollywood producer.

But it's the film's authenticity that has made it a questionable commercial prospect. Art believes that all the studios passed on the picture because its honest portrayal of the insidiousness of the business made them uncomfortable. But I think they suspected that its very veracity made it a tough sell east of the 5 Freeway. When I went to see the picture, I was accompanied by someone outside the biz--what Variety would call a "non-pro"--who put it this way: "It has its moments, but who wants to see a film about a depressed Hollywood producer?" That's the film's essential box-office drawback. It's too inside for comfort.    

Artistically, that's not such a bad thing. You might have made the same assessment about Levinson's "Wag the Dog," yet it has held up just fine as an acidic take on the collision between media and politics. But for anxious, timid studio buyers, "What Just Happened?" is probably just too big a leap. It will, I suspect, end up as a cult favorite, a bracing view of the Unbearable Anxiety of Hollywood. It certainly endorses what Linson once told me, just days after one of his films took a horrible beating at the box office: "If I was writing a country song, it would be 'Mama, Don't Let Your Son Grow Up to Be a Movie Producer.' "

Here's a great clip from the film's showbiz funeral scene (complete with French subtitles):

Photo of Robert De Niro, Barry Levinson and Art Linson at the Cannes Film Festival in May by Fred Dufour / AFP / Getty Images