In Hollywood, hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars can hinge upon a leading man's decision to shave. Just look at Bruce Willis
. Not in real life... but in What Just Happened, where Willis appears as himself. In the film, he's been cast in a big movie, but he's put on a few pounds since his last picture, and has decided to grow a shaggy beard.
This doesn't settle well with the studio that's paying $20 million for a man with sex-appeal; they don't want someone who resembles Santa Claus. If Willis doesn't shave and drop some weight, the studio will pull the plug on the movie and sue for damages. But Willis has been growing the beard for six months and wants to make an artistic statement. He's not going to be picking up a can of shaving cream anytime soon. Article continues below
Trapped in the middle is the film's producer, Ben (Robert De Niro
), who has just been named one of Hollywood's most powerful people by Vanity Fair. He passes the daunting task of convincing Willis to shave to Willis' overstressed, scatterbrained agent (John Turturro
). Meanwhile, Ben aims to settle the nerves of the director (Michael Wincott) of another film starring Sean Penn. The studio boss (Catherine Keener
) orders that the film be cut due to poor test screening reports. If they don't re-edit the ending in which the hero's dog takes a bullet to the head, she's cancelling the film's premiere at Cannes.
All the while, Ben still has feelings for Kelly (Robin Wright Penn
), his ex-wife. But she's sleeping with one of the screenwriters (Stanley Tucci
), much to his dismay. The apple doesn't fall from the tree with Ben's daughter (Kristen Stewart
). She's only in high school, but has found time to sleep with her father's big shot friends.
Based on writer-producer Art Linson's book What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line, this is one of those slice-of-life movies that observes a character's life for a brief period of time, then happily goes on its way. When done well, this sub-genre offers biting honesty and unique perspective (Broken Flowers); when done poorly, these films are random, awkward, and inconclusive (Elephant). With Barry Levinson
directing such an incredible cast, though, What Just Happened happily falls into the first category.
Farces about Hollywood's lack of integrity have been done before (The Player), but What Just Happened still feels fresh and original thanks to Levinson's phenomenal direction. He helms the movie with flawless comedic timing, creating a fast-paced ironic and satirical tone. Speaking of irony, Linson's screenplay is careful to poke fun at Hollywood without insulting and demeaning it... too badly, at least. He still works in Tinsletown, after all, and he wouldn't want to burn a bridge.
De Niro is the centerpiece of the film; the stage on which the colorful characters waltz. His biting persona and over-the-top theatrics create huge laughs, which reminds us that, while De Niro might be best known for his dramatic work, he's quite skilled at satire. Remember Wag the Dog (another Levinson production)? Here, he nails the producer character with such precision that's it comes as no surprise that he himself is one of the producers of What Just Happened. Talk about irony.