This film review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on June 4, 2009
Directed by Barry Levinson
Written by Art Linson, based on his book
Starring Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Bruce Willis, Robin Wright Penn, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Stewart and Michael Wincott
Pity poor American Jewish film producer Ben (Robert De Niro). He has three children from two ex-wives, both of whom live in gigantic Los Angeles mansions that he is paying for. His oldest child, 17 year old daughter Zoe (Kristen Stewart from Twilight), was in some sort of intimate relationship with an agent who just committed suicide. Ben is still in love with his most recent ex-wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), but she appears to be sleeping with married screenwriter Scott Solomon (Stanley Tucci), who is pitching him an un-produce-able script described as “the Rose Bowl Parade meets The Da Vinci Code”. Kelly and Ben are going to “learn how to live apart” therapy in which they are guaranteed to “never want to get back together.” He also has two Israeli businessmen desperate to throw money at his next film, whatever that is – they don’t seem to care.
But there’s more. The director of his current film (Michael Wincott) – a spoiled, neurotic British director with red painted fingernails and a “Chai” tattooed on his neck (he claims to be a descendant of ghetto Jews from Vilna) – wants to kill off not just the film’s leading man (played by Sean Penn, as himself) but also his leading man’s loyal white dog. As a result, the studio head Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener) is threatening to take the film away from him and prevent them from going to the Cannes Film Festival. And his next film is about to start shooting with star Bruce Willis (also playing himself), except that he is heavily overweight and has a large “Grizzly Adams” beard that he refuses to shave. Willis’ agent (played by John Turturro) is so scared of him that he has crippling stomach pains.
This, in a nutshell, is the frenetic plot of the film What Just Happened, a frequently hilarious romp through two weeks of the life of film producer Ben. Written by successful film producer Art Linson (Into the Wild, Fight Club, The Untouchables), based on his memoir and clearly, his life, it is directed by Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Bugsy, “Rain Man), who is showing a return to form after a few less than successful outings.
I am a sucker for films about Hollywood, which is a very easily satirised place. The beauty of What Just Happened is that its comedy comes from situations which are probably not exaggerated, mostly just condensed. There are loads of memorable lines (“I am not just some silly girl in tight clothes; I went to Stanford”), including a number which are inappropriate to repeat in a family newspaper because of their explicit sexual nature. This is probably the best – at least the most intelligent – comedy about Hollywood since Robert Altman/s The Player (Tropic Thunder was very funny, just not that intelligent), but unlike Altman’s film there is no “dark heart” inside – just a reasonably sincere, occasionally befuddled but earnest film producer, winningly and disarmingly played by De Niro. The rest of the characters are also delightful; the richness of the writing is evident in every scene.
The other thing about Hollywood, of course, is that it is so Jewish, and What Just Happened reflects this well. As well as this film’s (real life) director and screenwriter, virtually every character on screen is explicitly Jewish, excepting the characters of Bruce Willis, Sean Penn and Robin Wright Penn’s Kelly: True to Hollywood tradition, Ben “married Jewish” the first time, but found a blond “shiksa” the second.
De Niro has played a number of Jewish roles before, notably in Casino, Once Upon a Time in America, The King of Comedy and the character of Monroe Stahr – a fictionalised version of the Jewish producer Irving G. Thalberg – in the 1976 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. In recent years, however, he is much better known for his roles as a persecutor of mild Jews, specifically of Ben Stiller in both “Fockers” films and Billy Crystal in Analyse This and Analyse That. De Niro’s subtle performance anchors What Just Happened in many unexpected but thoroughly enjoyable ways. Recommended for film-goers who enjoy the film industry and want a bit of depth to their comedies.