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What Just Happened?
UKScreen Rating:

What Just Happened – Review

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Who’d be a producer? The “mayonnaise in a bad sandwich” as Bruce Willis (as himself) describes the most thankless role in the movie business.
As the film begins, middle-aged producer Ben (De Niro) has just been picked as one of the top thirty producers in Hollywood, but boy, does he have to jostle for his position in this most fickle of industries!
Ben is in that thankless position of being in post-production on one film and pre-production on another at the same time – unable to give his new project the undivided attention it desperately needs, as there are still some not insignificant loose ends to tie up from the old one.
A test screening of Fiercely, starring Sean Penn, goes down well with the audience until the final scene, where a dog is shot dead at close range.
Ben’s fading powers of persuasion are pushed to their limits, trying to convince British director Jeremy (Wincott) to change the ending to spare the dog in time for Cannes, while at the same time, doing all he can to get a cantankerous Bruce Willis to shave off his Santa beard, with the studio threatening to pull the financing for that movie, on the grounds that an audience wouldn’t accept a bearded hero.
All the while, between trying to please audiences, actors, agents and studio bosses, the one person Ben really wants to please – his estranged wife Kelly (Wright Penn) – is drifting further away.
He even finds himself offering to produce the film of her current beau, to try to keep her closer.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

The film – like many about the industry – will be more funny to outsiders and more painful to insiders.
But unlike many in this genre, this film can’t really decide what it’s trying to do.
Is it trying to mock the studios? Their human face – Catherine Keener – doesn’t seem as evil or ruthless as she’d need to be for her to be the target of a bitter satire – she’s like a mouse compared with the executives of films like The Player or TV shows like Entourage.
Is it trying to mock the agents? Well, the agents in this film are largely weak or overbearing caricatures – but nothing like as interesting as anything we’d see in Entourage or Californication – an entertainment industry TV show that manages to heap even more emotional and professional misery on its protagonist.
Is it trying to mock the producers? Given that the man leading us through this story is the hapless producer Ben, it needs us to be his friends, so the film isn’t nasty to him.
The real bad guys of this picture are the prima-donna directors and self-important actors, but while we’re made to laugh at their tantrums, the reality is that as long as the industry is driven by star-power (anyone going to see this one is doing so to see “that new film with Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis and Sean Penn”), this is just the way it is – it’s descriptive rather than satirical.
Similarly, there’s a sense in which the film is having a dig at the audiences who are so shallow that they wouldn’t accept dead dogs or bearded heroes. It’s a brave film that launches one of its barbs at the very people it needs to fuel its coffers.
There are some sharp observations (watching Ben wriggle in his seat as he watches audience members reacting to each scene and leaving his tiny Hollywood flat to visit his ex-wife at the Beverly Hills mansion he once inhabited) and witty asides, but very little we’ve never seen before.
The genre has long since been well worn on the big and small screen and this player in a crowded field doesn’t really have the bite or originality it needs to lift it far above the average Hollywood fare.
It’s very enjoyable – but a mild disappointment.
It’s unquestionably darkly fun – but far too warm to achieve what it seems to be setting out to do. Most of the darkness resides in his personal life rather than the industry.
It’s a weapon without a target. A dart without a board. A monster with more cuddly fur than sharp teeth.
It’s a satire that loves the industry it’s satirising, rather than despises it.
A film that sets out to destroy the film business is a brave prospect – but The Player, Living in Oblivion and Swimming with Sharks have the courage of their convictions, in the way this doesn’t.
This might feel a bit more at home as an episodic TV sitcom. But real stars like Willis and De Niro wouldn’t do TV…

opens nationwide 28th November 2008

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