Say what you will about the guy, but nobody, nobody, is better at playing Bruce Willis than Bruce Willis. As a portly, bearded, tantrum-throwing, chair-tossing version of the movie star "Bruce Willis," Die Hard dude all but walks off with What Just Happened. Watch Willis blow his fuse in front of the producer of his new picture ( Robert De Niro), and you'd swear you can see the Oscar-winning tough guy not just flinch at the mock violence. Bobby D's giggling behind those eyes.
Movies about Hollywood are as common as Jolie babies, and there have been broader, funnier, meaner takes on the business than this one. But this Barry Levinson version of real-life producer Art Linson's memoir is more movie-savvy than any of them. Linson, who produced Fight Club, Into the Wild and scads of other films, finally shows us what a "real" producer actually does.
Ben (De Niro) has a Sean Penn drama in previews, going through test screenings. It's not going well. He begs the director to cut it.
"Where can I kiss you? Where? Name the location!"
He has another picture about to start filming. But his star, the man whose presence ensures that the film will be financed and filmed, has "a Grizzly Adams beard. And he's a pig." They're talking about Bruce Willis. He doesn't shave, no movie.
A screenwriter ( Stanley Tucci) is determined to make this film about a florist.
"It's the Rose Bowl Parade meets The Da Vinci Code!"
And an agent known and hated by all has just killed himself. Think of this as Three Movies and a Funeral.
Add to that stress the weight of Ben's home life -- as in, he has none. He has two ex-wives, including one he's still in love with, a trophy bride ( Robin Wright Penn) who tired of his "work first" lifestyle and the ever-ringing phone.
What Just Happened follows Ben through two weeks of his life, bending over backward at every turn, stroking his mad Brit director (Michael Wincott, a stitch), nagging Bruce's ulcerous agent ( John Turturro, hilarious) into making his client shave, yielding to the will of an iron-lady studio boss ( Catherine Keener, doing a perfect Sherry Lansing), trying to please everyone, pleasing almost no one, and knowing that all this effort is just running in place, paying alimony, child support and overhead while watching his status on Vanity Fair's "Hollywood power" ladder slip by the hour.
De Niro is the best he has been in years as this master negotiator who somehow can't seem to get anyone to do things his way, an unflappable operator who handles revelations about his kids and a brazen come-on by a starlet in a men's room as business as usual, nothing to lose your cool over. Linson, producing the film, and director Levinson see to it that Ben is not the movie-mogul-as-monster we've seen in Swimming with Sharks and other Hollywood roman à clefs. 1He's just a guy who multitasks, charms, lies and stalks his latest ex-wife because he has to.
It's Hollywood, and everyone's into yoga, Ecstasy and starlets, yoked to their Bluetooth like a deal-sealing ball-and-chain. Yes, it's an inside-baseball movie in the extreme. But if you're into baseball, you'll recognize the lineup and grin at What Just Happened.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun