It's not until the last few minutes of "What Just Happened" that the film's title is posed as a question, not by the protagonist but by his ex-wife. She doesn't get a straight answer, as, presumably, she never has. Her former husband is a Hollywood producer.
In that it tends to confirm all the usual stereotypes about Hollywood, you could say that there are no surprises in Barry Levinson's funny, sly and highly stress-inducing movie about two crazy weeks in the life of a successful producer. "What Just Happened" is a fictionalized adaptation of the autobiography of veteran producer Art Linson, who also wrote the screenplay.
Briskly, almost curtly directed by Levinson, it stars a low-key, even-keel and surprisingly affable Robert De Niro as Ben, a producer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The cast includes Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, Robin Wright Penn, Catherine Keener and Michael Wilcott as, respectively, Sean Penn; Bruce Willis; Ben's indecisive second ex-wife, Kelly; an icy studio head named Lou; and the bad-boy (read: drug-addicted, self-important hack) British director Jeremy, whose ultra-violent, downer movie has fallen out of favor with Lou. Stanley Tucci plays Ben's screenwriter friend, who is now sleeping with his ex-wife, and John Turturro takes on the role of Willis' gutless agent, whose clients scare him so badly that he walks around screaming in pain from an unidentified stomach condition.
The story is framed by a scene of a photo shoot for Vanity Fair's power issue, and everything that happens happens between Ben finding out that he's been included on the list and the photo actually being taken. In that time, Ben's standing on the list drops more than a few notches. Here is Hollywood, as it ever is in these kinds of self-portraits, in all its back-stabbing, hypocritical, self-serving, narcissistic, self-sabotaging glory. Any remaining illusions anyone might have about the survival of the artistic process should be dashed by scenes like the one in which a test audience in Costa Mesa is given response cards and told, "You're very much a part of the filmmaking process."
Any remaining illusions about the integrity of artists working in Hollywood are put to rest by Wilcott's portrayal of Jeremy the director. We've seen it all before, and yet the feeling of familiarity doesn't dampen the fun of having your cortisol spiked to stroke-inducing levels. Watching Ben attempt to keep his head while trying to get Jeremy's movie finished in time for Cannes and starting production on the Willis vehicle (which is in danger of being shut down unless Willis shaves a bushy beard he's grown unaccountably fond of) without getting crushed is like watching the most dread-suffused game of Frogger ever.
The movie is brilliant at portraying the incredibly high stakes of the seemingly inconsequential and the tremendous amounts of money spent on it. Remaining in the courtly favor of the studio chiefs and keeping up social appearances are key, but money is the animating force of the movie. While waiting for a meeting with Lou, Ben and Jeremy, notice that the poster in the area outside her office is a picture of a huge lizard eye with a dollar amount printed below it. Jeremy, of course, is less than impressed, just as Lou is uninterested in Jeremy's artistic vision, just as Kelly is unmoved by the demands of Ben's job, which supports her baronial lifestyle. But Ben knows what it all comes down to.
"See that?" he says to Jeremy. "No director. No producer. Just a number. A big number."
Movies about Hollywood tend to break the cardinal Hollywood movie rule in that they rarely present a character we can really root for. There are no likable characters in "What Just Happened" (the ex-wives and aspiring ex-wives, for all their disingenuity, are particularly loathsome), but Ben's exotic and rarefied plight will actually strike a chord with everyone who ever felt their attention pulled in too many directions. Actually, I take it back about there being no surprises -- the surprise is how sympathetic Ben manages to be, considering what he does for a living. Even more surprising, by that measure, is that the movie's second-most sympathetic character is the agent. But maybe "sympathetic" is taking it too far. Rather, by the end, you know how he feels: queasy, clenched, weirdly exhilarated.
"What Just Happened." MPAA rating: R for language, some violent images, sexual content and some drug material. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. In limited release.