If you're a ravenous movie nerd like me, than there's very little in Barry Levinson's "inside baseball" Hollywood movie What Just Happened? If, on the other hand, you don't know a whole lot about studio politics, the angst of test-market screenings, and the tricks that movie-makers (or, more specifically, movie-sellers) will pull just to get a festival screening and a huge opening weekend, then you'll most likely get a whole bunch of chuckles out of the flick. To those who know about this stuff all too well, the comedy should still make for an interesting enough diversion -- thanks mainly to a massive, colorful cast and a few solid jabs that hit Hollywood right in the kisser.
Based on producer Art Linson's book What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line, the film version tells the story of one very successful Hollywood producer, and the ways in which he juggles multiple professional crises, as well as some prickly domestic issues at the same time. Robert De Niro is our movie producer, doing his best "sly" comedic work since (probably) Wag the Dog. John Turturro is the archetypal agent: skittish, shifty, and packing a nasty ulcer. Stanley Tucci is the writer who needs our protagonist for professional reasons, but pursues his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) for other activities. Michael Wincott is the drug-infested director whose ultra-edgy film is being mangled by horrifying studio boss Catherine Keener.
Toss in some supremely amusing "self-mocking" performances from movie stars Bruce Willis and Sean Penn, and you've got the makings of a flick best described as "movie geek heaven." And while What Just Happened? is by all means a colorful and generally pretty funny expose of modern-day Hollywood, it often feels like Levinson and Linson (he also penned the screenplay adaptation) are content to preach to the choir. It's meant to be outrageous and unbelievable how art turns into pure commerce, but there have been plenty of Hollywood satires that demolish the "test screening" mentality, the "beleaguered producer" conceit, and the oh-so-cynical insinuation that Hollywood has no integrity whatsoever. So while much of the material in What Just Happened? is insightful and accurate ... it's just not all that new or shocking anymore.