Ben (Robert De Niro), the producer in the middle of the Hollywood comedy What Just Happened?, always has to push ahead, even when he's not sure where he's going and even when he regrets leaving something behind. Enormous projects such as Hollywood movies or American political campaigns require a propulsive, never-say-die attitude just to cross the finish line. At the moment this movie picks up Ben's life story, he's not sure he's going to make it there on any front.
He's still in love with his second wife (Robin Wright Penn), though they've undertaken divorce therapy to learn how to "let go." He's devoted to his eldest child (Kristen Stewart), his daughter from his first marriage, but hasn't kept up to date on her growing pains. His almost-completed film, Fiercely, previews disastrously, largely because of devastating cruelty toward man's best friend. The movie's British auteur (Michael Wincott) will make changes only under the influence of prescription drugs. And his latest film may implode before shooting unless the star, Bruce Willis (played by Bruce Willis), agrees to shave off a Mosaic beard.
Some of these problems may be unique to Hollywood, but they reflect the overloaded existence that's been celebrated everywhere from coffee commercials to wired campuses and white-collar sweatshops. No one in this film has a full and frank conversation; everyone is negotiating relationships and deals, or barking or receiving orders, or simply begging for favors. Coitus always verges on becoming interruptus.
What Just Happened? is a wise comedy about vitality wearing out in the rush, and meaning getting lost in dithering activity. It has the sense not to wear its wisdom on its tailored sleeves. The movie is quick and deft, with a fluid, not frantic, mode of shooting and editing. The director, Barry Levinson, brings off almost each charged incident lightly, not frivolously; by the end, you know you've seen a structured vision of contemporary adult life.
De Niro has never been more sneakily inventive. (This performance is even richer than his work in Levinson's Wag the Dog.) Through it all, Ben maintains what seems like a neutral expression. It's actually a collection of grimaces, shadowy quarter-smiles and rueful nods. The way De Niro pulls off this role, brilliantly, it's hard to distinguish a shock of recognition from a wince. When the absence of an armchair in his former home snags his attention, you know it's his own symbol for everything he loved in a life he couldn't hang on to.
Working from a rock-hard, witty autobiographical script by Art Linson (based on his excellent memoir of the same name), De Niro and Levinson turn Ben, Tinseltown moviemaker, into an Everyman writ large. It's continually funny to watch Ben struggle with divorce while answering the demands of temperamental co-workers and imperious, yet insecure, executives. The filmmakers and their star depict everyday suffering amid glamour and luxury in a way that's sad and humorous at the same time.
If Ben can still talk big, he isn't exactly living large. His ex-wives occupy spacious, beautiful homes; he's back to a rented apartment. In his own low-key manner, he's desperate. He's also a warm, sympathetic figure: a man who makes a living by furthering other people's dreams of accomplishment or success. During one crisis, he challenges Willis to compare artistic track records, but he backs down with hilarious swiftness before the ferocious star.
In the world of What Just Happened?, pride and integrity become arguing points and bargaining tools. But, it seems to say, better you have some pride, integrity and courage than none at all. Maybe all these good qualities can do in a corrupt environment is help you carry the fear and pain more gracefully. John Turturro is hilarious as an agent whose clients petrify him into a stomach disorder. Stanley Tucci brings keen timing to the role of a writer who (unusual for tales of Hollywood) is every bit the survivor that Ben is.
In their scenes together, Tucci and De Niro play virtuoso duets on the themes of manipulation and betrayal. The movie is never moralistic or sentimental. Framed by a photo shoot of supposedly powerful producers staged by Vanity Fair, it says to all those who've fantasized about being studio big shots after reading Vanity Fair (or, God help us, The New Yorker), this is what life is like: an endless rush toward ever-receding goals.
Levinson has given it all a style that allows us to inhabit Ben's life and savor its few sunny moments without wallowing in its name-dropping allure. This director has always had a nonpareil ear for music; here he turns the soundtrack for the film-within-a-film, Fiercely, into the background riffs of Ben's tense existence. (Even here, the film is not relentless; the score contains patches of Mediterranean blitheness.)
Each member of the ensemble brings different notes to the comedy-drama. Wright Penn has a mature, cellolike warmth as the wife Ben wishes he still had; Sean Penn is refreshingly limber and unmannered as the star of Fiercely. And Catherine Keener brings a sharp, slashing attack to the role of the studio chief. De Niro holds this film together, not with bluster or dynamism, but with humanity. In revealing the weakness of a man who lives by the exercise of power, he restores his strength as an actor and makes you care beyond measure for what just happened.
What Just Happened?
(Magnolia Pictures) Starring Robert De Niro, Robin Wright Penn, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, Bruce Willis. Directed by Barry Levinson. Rated R for language, some violent images, sexual content and drug references. Time 109 minutes.
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