Julia Phillips famous autobiography was titled, Youll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. Barry Levinson and Art Linson will. At this point, if youre going to make a film about Hollywood greed, hypocrisy and lust, you have to be willing to burn your bridges. Theres not a whole lot in What Just Happened? that would be out of place in a good SNL skit.
Linson is an A-list producer (Fight Club, Into the Wild) who wrote this screenplay based on his memoir, subtitled Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line. He knows where the bodies are buried and who buried them, but he doesnt dig anybody up or turn anybody in. If you want to see a movie that Rips The Lid Off Tinseltown, just go ahead and watch Robert Altmans The Player (1992). Altman took no hostages. He didnt give a damn. And the book and screenplay he started with were by Michael Tolkin, who was closer to the front line and a lot more bitter. He didnt give a damn, either.
What Just Happened? stars Robert De Niro as a powerful Hollywood producer who has two troubled projects on his hands and a messy private life. De Niro warmed up for this film in The Last Tycoon (1976), in a role inspired by Irving Thalberg. That screenplay was by Harold Pinter, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Levinson himself directed the brilliant Wag the Dog (1998), where De Niro played a political spin doctor assigned to fabricate reasons for a war.
Mamet wrote that screenplay, which was astonishingly prescient. The movie, which premiered on Dec. 17, 1997, gave us a U.S. president accused of luring a Firefly Girl into a room near the Oval Office and presenting her with unique opportunities to salute her commander in chief. The first hints of the Monica Lewinsky scandal became public in January 1998. For the White House methods used to invent reasons for a phony war, Mamet was six years ahead of Iraq.
So what am I saying? Should Mamet have written What Just Happened? Why not? For Mamets Heist, produced by Linson, he gave Danny DeVito one of the funniest lines ever written: Everybody loves money! Thats why they call it money! For that matter, Varietys Todd McCarthy thinks some of the characters in this film are inspired by the making of Linsons The Edge, also written by Mamet. A pattern emerges. But everything I think of is luring me further away from What Just Happened?
Anyway, Ben, the De Niro character, has just had a disastrous preview of his new Sean Penn picture, Fiercely. The audience recoils at the end, when a dog is shot. The problem with the footage of Fiercely we see is that it doesnt remotely look like a real movie. Meantime, Ben is trying to get his next project off the ground. It will star Bruce Willis as an action hero, but inconveniently Willis has put on a lot of weight and grown a beard worthy of the Smith Brothers.
Ben is still in love with Kelly, his ex-wife No. 2 (Robin Wright Penn), but they just havent been able to make it work and are now immersed in something I think is called Break-Up Therapy. And their daughter Zoe (Kristen Stewart) is having anguish of her own, which goes with the territory for a rich kid from a shattered home in 90210. And Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener), Bens studio chief, is scared to death that Fiercely will tank. And the films mad-dog British director (Michael Wincott) defends the dogs death as artistically indispensable. And the writer of the Bruce Willis thriller (Stanley Tucci) is having an affair with Bens ex-wife No. 2.
This isnt a Hollywood satire its a sitcom. The flywheels of the plot machine keep it churning around, but it chugs off onto the back lot and doesnt hit anybody in management. Only Penn and Willis are really funny, poking fun not at themselves but at stars they no doubt hate to work with. Wincott is great as the Brit director who wants to end with the dead dog; one wonders if Linson was inspired by Lee Tamahori, the fiery New Zealand director of The Edge, who stepped on the astonishing implications of Mamets brilliant last scene by fading to black and immediately popping up a big credit for Bart the Bear.