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What Just Happened

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 10/15/2008

When Barry Levinson's pictures are set in the Baltimore of his youth or the Hollywood of his adulthood, there's a sense of lived-in detail that's missing from those set elsewhere. He's on familiar ground with What Just Happened, his new movie about a Hollywood producer suffering a middle-aged crisis. Art Linson, a heavyweight producer himself (Fight Club, Scrooged, Melvin and Howard), adapted the screenplay from his 2002 book, and Levinson allows the humor to bubble up from a thousand spot-on details rather than from exaggerated gestures.

Robert De Niro, sporting salt-and-pepper hair, designer glasses, and fashionable stubble on his sagging face, plays Ben, a producer facing problems on every side. He desperately needs a hit movie and his two current projects both have problems. One, a stylish action flick starring Sean Penn, is testing badly with preview audiences because the edgy British director (Michael Wincott, dressed up to look like Johnny Depp impersonating Keith Richards) insists on shooting the hero's dog in the last scene. Poor Ben has to reassure his icily ruthless studio boss (a terrific Catherine Keener) that the scene will be cut while simultaneously promising the hysterical director that his artistic vision will be protected.

The other movie is getting ready to shoot, but Bruce Willis has shown up for work with a bald head, a bulging belly, and a bushy beard. When Ben delicately suggests that this is not the best look for the leading man in a romantic comedy, Willis starts raging: How dare a mere producer question his artistic choices? He emphasizes his point by flinging racks of costumes across a room. Ben tells Willis' agent (John Turturro) that the studio is paying Willis $25 million only if "millions of menstruating women want to have sex with him," but the cringing, nervous agent gets stomach cramps when he even thinks about confronting his client.

Meanwhile, Ben is trying to reconcile with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn), only to discover that she's sleeping with one of his screenwriters (Stanley Tucci). And he doesn't want to know whom his teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart) is sleeping with. De Niro copes with all this with a world-weary, long-suffering stoicism, as if he were the Job of Hollywood. Much of the laughs come from his attempts to be reasonable in an unreasonable world. Much of the poignancy comes from his determined but ultimately futile efforts to hold off the erosion of age.

The satire here is not as sharp or as bold as in Wag the Dog, and the laughs aren't as big either. But the laughs do come consistently, especially if you love movies enough to appreciate an extended joke about the jostling for position in the Vanity Fair photo spread about "The 30 Most Powerful Producers."

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