What Just Happened
Someone get this man a hot dog!

Theatrical Release Date: 10/17/2008
Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Robert De Niro, Robin Wright Penn, Catherine Keener, John Turturro, Michael Wincott, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Stewart, Sean Penn

Films about the movie making process are nothing new – “The Player”, “Get Shorty”, “For Your Consideration“, the list goes on and on. Now you can add “What Just Happened” to the list; a sad tale of a producer whose career priorities have cost him a full and happy life and whose latest film could be the death bell on all his years of hard work, deceit and brown nosing.

To play the flailing producer, Robert De Niro was given the nod and he truly seemed to enjoy the frailties of his character. While successful in the movie industry, each failed marriage and subsequent alimony payment only adds to the pressure of making a hit film. Add prima donna actors, chemically imbalanced directors and tough, non-nonsense studio heads to the mix and it’s clear that De Niro’s life – as well compensated as it is at times – isn’t one most people would covet.

And while this is billed as a comedy, it’s one of those “wink, wink” comedies where most of the jokes are so dry that a good Santa Ana would set the print on fire. I will capitulate that some of the performances transcend the overall ennui that shrouds the project. Michael Wincott steals every scene he’s in and is the saving grace when it comes to sparking some life into the film. It was also fun to see Catherine Keener’s duplicitous nature when it came to dealing with those beneath her and top-name stars like Sean Penn.

However, many more feel like they’re trying too hard to emphasize their character flaws. Add that to a script which intentionally keeps any character from being truly likable and finding a way to become emotionally invested is nigh impossible. Perhaps one of the more sad elements to how the overall film turned out is that it was written by Art Linson, who has been a producer for over thirty years, with such notable films as “Fight Club”, “Scrooged” and “Heat” under his belt.

At the helm of this ship is director Barry Levinson , who is no stranger to dry, dark comedies and does his best to coat the film with as much “Wag the Dog” sensibility as possible. However, it takes more than atmosphere and a cast of big name actors to make a film entertaining. The film feels lifeless quite often, and perhaps another pass at giving it momentum would have helped.

The star studded cast surrounding De Niro wasn’t enough to keep me in the moment and this is yet again another film whose after parties were probably more interesting than the film itself. From beginning to end, the film moves at a snail’s pace. The tempo only changes when the film is sped up during car travel scenes to enhance the feeling of how hectic it is in L.A. Aside from those brief interludes, the audience is sucked down to the depths of the Hollywood underbelly and forced to suffer along with De Niro.

Now, there’s thought behind this process and I understand it from an artistic angle … it’s just too bad knowing that and being okay with it in this instance are two different things. I felt rather listless for much of the tail end of the film and while I truly revel in melancholy and emotionally draining cinema, I’ve never warmed up to movies about career hell (“Office Space” notwithstanding).

As such, I’m afraid I have to give “What Just Happened” a 2 out of 5 because yes, that just happened. If you’re crazy about Hollywood insider cinema, by all means give this a shot. If you just want a good comedy, free of the adult angst splattered all over the screen here, try something else.