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The Bad Shepherd

What Just Happened (2008)

Magnolia Pictures

No one should doubt the veracity of “What Just Happened.” Based on the book by longtime producer and first-time screenwriter Art Linson, the film depicts its Hollywood milieu so realistically it could easily be a documentary. That’s both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness.

The story of a standard, tumultuous week in the life of Mr. Linson’s doppelganger, high-powered producer Ben (Robert De Niro), badly needs some sort of heightened satirical touch to stand out from the pack of other, better movies about Hollywood. In their apparent determination to not embellish anything, Mr. Linson and director Barry Levinson have given us a movie full of familiar scenes and insights that anyone who’s ever read anything about Hollywood probably already knows. It’s reasonably fun stuff, but not especially dramatic.

Also, in its desire to include as many insider details as possible, the film flirts dangerously close to self-absorption. The sly references and frequent in-jokes grow wearisome. By the time Bruce Willis shows up as a (presumably) monstrous caricature of his true self, chewing scenery and losing his mind over the studio’s demand that he shave his beard for a new project, any novelty value has worn thin.

More positively, present-day Mr. De Niro actually gets to play a fully-formed character and not a one-note offshoot of a great past role. While most industry satires characterize producers as evil, out-of-touch moneymen, Ben seems to genuinely care for the art and believe in his projects. He seems, above all else, to be desperately seeking the sort of normal family life with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) and daughters, the kind that men with his weaknesses basically can’t have. It’s easy to have empathy for him, but much harder to be actively engaged in his everyday journey through Tinseltown.


Opened on Oct. 17 in the United States and on Nov. 28 in Britain.

Directed by Barry Levinson; written by Art Linson, based on his book “What Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line”; director of photography, Stéphane Fontaine; edited by Hank Corwin; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Stefania Cella; produced by Robert De Niro, Mr. Linson, Jane Rosenthal and Mr. Levinson; released by Magnolia Pictures (United States) and Pathé Distribution (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Robert De Niro (Ben), Catherine Keener (Lou Tarnow), Sean Penn (Sean Penn), John Turturro (Dick Bell), Michael Wincott (Jeremy Brunell), Robin Wright Penn (Kelly), Kristen Stewart (Zoe), Stanley Tucci (Scott Solomon) and Bruce Willis (Actor).


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