Ben is a Hollywood producer trying to get his films made while fighting the system all along the way.
What Just Happened? is based on the novel What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line by Hollywood producer Art Linson. Linson hit it big producing Car Wash and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and then after hits The Untouchables and Heat, signed a new first look contract with FOX. What Just Happened?, the novel, is the fractured story of his tumultuous time at FOX, touching on such troubled productions as The Edge, Fight Club and Great Expectations. There are so many great stories in the book and it is an addictive read that touches on so many funny, painful moments.
Linson’s friend Robert DeNiro read the book and suggested it could make a great movie. I tend to agree with that sentiment but what resulted from the suggestion is far from a great movie. Because the script was written by the author, a man who has worked with writers named David Mamet and Cameron Crowe, I expected something better.
The novel is a series of moments and anecdotes about the making of specific movies so Linson had to develop a storyline to surround the anecdotes to make it a movie. The story is about a movie producer named Ben (DeNiro), an alter ego of Linson. He starts the film in a movie screening that fails horribly, mainly because the bad guys kill the hero’s (Sean Penn) dog at the end. He is told he has to force the director to change the ending or the movie will be pulled from Cannes. He then drifts through the next few days, having personal problems involving his ex-wife and kids. Those scenes dragged the movie down. Robin Wright Penn was admirable as his wife and Kirsten Stewart had the small role as his daughter, but none of those subplots went anywhere thanks to the superior alternate ending you can see on the DVD being changed. With the ending they relied on, if the movie had relied solely on mishaps on the sets of his films, it would have made a better movie.
The film tries real hard to balance itself as a comedy but the comic is too painful to be funny, but not painful enough to be acidic. The scene that made the book most memorable involved the making of The Edge, when Alec Baldwin showed up on set fat and bearded. The studio threatened to fire him and shut down the project if he didn’t shave. He threw a tantrum but eventually shaved.
In the film, Bruce Willis plays the troublemaking star, raising the level of danger in the predicament. The studio could have fired Alec Baldwin and replaced him quite easily but to make the incident seem more dangerous than it was, they had the major star throwing the tantrum and threatened to completely shut down the picture, firing everyone involved. Bruce Willis was great in this role and really seemed to enjoy making fun of the entire behind-the-scenes process, but the direction by Barry Levinson really took me out of the scene.
That was my problem throughout the entire film. There were so many good performances but Levinson really let me down with his pacing and style in the film. The camera seems to want to be an observer to the action and seems out of place in much of the film. I think his cinematic output over the last twelve years shows Wag the Dog was an anomaly in his below average career.
The performances almost saved the movie. Sean Penn was good in his small role, playing himself as the actor in the controversial movie where the dog is killed. The movie within the movie is mired in controversy surrounding the violence, mirroring Fight Club, a movie produced by Linson. In What Just Happened?, the director of the controversial film is an unbalanced addict portrayed superbly by Michael Wincott. Wincott steals every scene he appears as his character re-cuts the movie per studio orders only to sabotage their efforts and get everyone fired by giving his original cut to Cannes. It is the best storyline in the film.
The biggest crime this movie commits is being boring. I hate the fact that the fun, thrifty story from the book was turned into such a plodding waste of time. It is a letdown for the great source material. The movie finally plods to an end with a whimper and it couldn’t have come any sooner.
There is an audio commentary with director Barry Levinson and Art Linson, the writer/producer the film was based on. The two men carry on a nice conversation, but that should be expected as Linson is full of fun anecdotes. I just wish more of these anecdotes had made it into the movie.
There was a great deleted scene which is an alternate ending, and should have been the ending used. It shows what happened to everyone, including the controversial movie becoming successful when it was finally “dumped” in theaters. This ending was great, compared to the poor one they chose to use. There are two other deleted scenes as well. If you watch this DVD, watch the alternate ending. It would have improved my rating.
There is a Behind the Scenes feature that is about 2.5 minutes long showing them filming scenes, casting sessions with 12 of the people playing minor roles in the film as they read for the part, and a making of that discusses the process of turning the book into the film. The making of talks to Linson, Levinson and DeNiro and repeats much of the information given in the forward of the actual book. Linson mentions this was his first screenplay, which is obvious. It stands at about 24 minutes. No Animals were Harmed in the Making of this Movie is a short feature that is pretty stupid where “The Dog” from the controversial movie explains to us he wasn’t actually hurt while performing in the movie.