starring Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener
screenplay by Art Linson, based on his book
directed by Barry Levinson
by Alex Jackson Already pegged as another legendary fiasco for Man of the Year helmer Barry Levinson, What Just Happened strongly suggests that Levinson is trying to Peter Bogdanovich himself into unemployment. Ben (Robert De Niro) is a fading Hollywood producer torn between two projects in need of salvaging. One is an action film starring Sean Penn that the director, Jeremy (Michael Wincott), has ended by having the villains shoot Penn's dog point blank in the head, spraying viscera on the camera lens. Test audiences are appalled and the higher-ups demand changes. Jeremy won't budge; he is, after all, an artist. Ben's second project features Bruce Willis, who has grown a "Grizzly Adams" beard for his character. The studio executives are so against this that they are threatening to shut down the project altogether unless he shaves, but Willis is arguably more stubborn than Jeremy. Levinson would appear to be saying that there is no such thing as art--that Jeremy and Willis are callow, self-absorbed morons, and even if a work of art were made it would never get past the powers that be, who have contempt for anything that doesn't follow the straight and narrow. It's hard to share his cynicism in the age of No Country for Old Men, and the film's crassly tongue-in-cheek happy ending struck me as particularly galling. Still, Levinson's sheer black rage obscures any real sense of superiority. Like Man of the Year, the film might have been unwatchable had he played any of it for laughs. As is, What Just Happened is suffused with a pungent feeling of melancholy I find fascinatingly subversive. The best joke of the film is that this is the finest role Robert De Niro has had in years, requiring both his laconic screen persona and the weight of a once-great actor rendered irrelevant by more than a decade of shitty movies. Being washed-up is apparently the only feeling either Levinson or De Niro can tap into these days.