An agent so afraid of all his clients that his stomach rumbles like Vesuvius. A superstar hired for an action film who shows up looking bearded and burly, like Steve McQueen as Dr. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People. A cutting-edge director who banks his career on a bloody climax involving Sean Penn, three thugs and a dog. These elements of the terrific new comedy What Just Happened? have caused some reviewers to label it a satire and judge it by the standards of satire, weighing whether it's as stringent or cutting as it might be.
Yet as anyone knows who's read Art Linson's source book of the same name (or his previous book, A Pound of Flesh), these characters and plotlines are the stuff of Hollywood reality, not satire, parody or burlesque. Linson is known as an intelligent, classy producer; his credits include Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Untouchables. What he set out to do when he wrote the screenplay was flesh out the fellow in the middle of all these outlandish quandaries: the producer. In doing so, Linson offers a privileged glimpse into the Hollywood way of life that's also a reflection of the muddled way a lot of us live now.
Over the phone from Connecticut, the director, Barry Levinson, says he's pleased with audiences at Sundance, Cannes and points in between for accepting the movie for what it is and going with it. But he's puzzled by the way film columnists and critics will "write about, not the film, but the film they want it to be."
It may be that Hollywood "product" has sunk to such low levels that reviewers resist a movie that depicts industry players as normal human beings. "When Vincente Minnelli made The Bad and the Beautiful, people didn't automatically think, 'Oh, it's a satire of the business.' It's a story set against a Hollywood backdrop. Art's book was not a satire, but a record of his journey as a producer during certain projects and a certain time. And the script gives us characters who are trying to survive, as we all are in one way or another."
In some ways, Los Angeles and the film business make What Just Happened ? more accessible to audiences.
"Sometimes, it's more interesting to see people struggling who are different from ourselves. It can be too painful to watch a story about survival with people who are 'just like us.' It's better when it's happening to the other guy."
Our media culture has not yet detoxed from tales depicting studio bosses and agency chiefs as awe-inspiring power brokers, in the pages of Vanity Fair and even The New Yorker.
What Just Happened? is a heathy antidote. It expresses Levinson's belief that "No one has 'the power,' not even the studio heads." One of the most-quoted lines from Linson's book was that the producer, often regarded as the man in control on a production, isn't the meat in the sandwich. He's the mayonnaise.
Linson now favors a starker metaphor. "I've always felt that in Hollywood is like this huge glass pane with snails on it," he says. "Everyone - producers, directors, studio chiefs, actors - is scared of sliding down." Linson, on the phone from Paris, says he never thought of What Just Happened ? as a script until Robert DeNiro called him twice, first to tell him the book was "very, very funny," and a week later to say, "You should do this as a movie."
The suggestion startled Linson. He wrote the book to let readers know "what it was like to be in the middle of the stew" and become part of the messy succession of pitch meetings, story discussions, star negotiations and editing sessions that go into the production and release of a "major motion picture." Linson says that DeNiro, "in his own smartly intuitive way," was somehow reading in what Linson left implicit in his writing: that the book had a unifying character, expressed in "the voice of the guy in the middle of the mess." In other words, Linson himself - or as he's known in the movie (and played by DeNiro), "Ben."
Viewing his material fresh, from DeNiro's point of view, he saw it was about a guy who "is hanging on for dear life" but pretending to everyone around him "that he is still ticking like a Timex watch." Everything in Ben's life is "coming apart at the seams." He can't let go of his feelings for his second wife (Robin Wright Penn) and is incensed when he realizes that a screenwriter friend may be having an affair with her. But his cell phone is always beckoning him to leave his personal business and put out some professional fire, such as getting the director to cut his bloody climax, and compelling the star to work out and shave his beard.
Writing the script provided even more of an epiphany for Linson than writing his two books. "After I put all these stories in a comic-dramatic context and confined them to a two-week time period, what ran through my mind was: 'My God, do I really want to work in this town?' "
Even so, Linson has kept his hand in the game; he gets an executive-producer credit on the current Fox biker-gang series, Sons of Anarchy. Levinson is wondering whether the kinds of movies he wants to make and see have any place at today's studios. "I was thinking of Paul Newman's filmography," he says. "And none of what we now regard as Newman's major films, the best work of this major Hollywood star, would now be regarded as major Hollywood movies. Hud? The Hustler? You couldn't make them at any studio. Even Butch Cassidy - a Western? You'd have to do it independently. Even Cool Hand Luke: the lead guy gets shot and dies on the way back to the penitentiary? You'd have a hard time getting that made. You can't sell that on an opening weekend."
Among Levinson's own classics, MGM had no idea how to handle Diner. He made Wag the Dog on a shoestring; Tri-Star never found a way to promote Bugsy, even with 10 Oscar nominations. Rain Man and Good Morning, Vietnam became smashes in spite of their studios. "When I look at them now, many weren't 'studio films' in any real sense, but the studios then had a wider band to their storytelling."
To become a reliable studio man these days, you have to follow the rules, such as making your next movie more expensive than the one you made before. Levinson has never bothered with that nonsense. "I've gone all over the place in terms of budget. ... I've let what I was interested in be my guide."
Levinson reckons that he's likely to do more films with genuine independent companies such as Magnolia Pictures, which put up the money for What Just Happened? "My interest is with characters. And characters are not where the studios want to live and breathe."