Review: What Just Happened

There seems to be a trend in Hollywood at the minute for introspective films, taking
a look at the people behind the industry.

Title What Just Happened II.2
Director Barry Levinson
Starring Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci
Running Time 104 Mins

There seems to be a trend in Hollywood at the minute for introspective films, taking
a look at the people behind the industry.

But while Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder took comic potshots at those in his own line of work, there is a gut-level sadness to What Just Happened that all the characters feel. Watch hard enough and you feel it too. Some of the characters cry, but most of them don’t. It’s the wise ones who cry.

Robert De Niro plays Ben, a struggling Hollywood producer whose new movie, it is known with terrifying certainty, is about to bomb.

The director is Jeremy Brunel (Michael
Wincott), who has in effect made a gangster film to make up for that film Guy Ritchie has always promised us, a lost masterpiece. Brunel is a Cockney druggie moviemaker, and the fact that his film is scheduled to fail is one of the few comforting
realities in this story.

A preview audience walks out in disgust at Brunel’s film, in which Sean Penn and his dog are brutally shot. Of course, Brunel’s film, in itself, is a piece of ineffectual hi-jinks – the shooting bits are supposed to be “the good bits.” But its relation to What Just Happened is pretty artful; it’s not just a McGuffin to get the story rolling.
It is said that for true tragedy you need both pity and terror. Between the two of them you get catharsis, which while harrowing,
offers an opening for future events. Well, Brunel’s film is all terror, and the rest of What Just Happened is all pity. It’s as if things like the gangster film are needed to provide real jolts of pure sensation in the sad world of What Just Happened, where in fact nothing – or at least nothing truly cathartic
– happens.

Instead Ben bombs around Los Angeles
conducting Hollywood business from his jeep, dropping the kids off to school, and getting in tangles with his ex-wife and soon-to-be-ex-wife. We see all the accoutrements
of contemporary American and European upper-middle-class life; the angular
“modern” mahogany furniture, the dinky little personal coffee machine in the morning, and so on. Ben argues in a foolish sentimental way about his current wife’s re-upholstery of a chair. It becomes a standard
contemporary “eye-catching” red.

It’s partly because of all this junk that there can be no real terror; life goes on comfortably enough despite Hollywood squabbles and family troubles.

Stylistically, the film attains to a bleached-out elegance, but aspires to the beauty of David Lynch’s view of Los Angeles
in Mulholland Drive, all lights at night and grand highways. But there is none of the weirdness that genuinely changes things in Lynch’s films.

There is, though, a moment of lucky sublimity at one point of the film. Ben is bombing along in the jeep again. And Nina Simone’s lovely “Mr Bojangles” comes on. This is a real opening – a clear demonstration
of the divide between the spiritual poverty of Ben’s everyday struggles and something better. One of the people at the preview of Brunel’s film patronisingly says the film’s music was great. But I don’t mean it as a backhanded compliment when I say that this piece of music was the best thing in What Just Happened.

It reminded me of an even better moment
in The Shawshank Redemption when a recording of a duet from The Marriage of Figaro is played by Tim Robbins. Morgan Freeman, whose commentary we hear, says he doesn’t know what the women are singing about, and perhaps it’s better that he doesn’t know, but that all the prisoners listening there were, for a brief moment, free.

As that moment shows, the standard notion about artistic beauty being a false escape from the constraints of reality isn’t the full story. The sadness of What Just Happened is that the music takes up just a brief few moments on the road. The great thing in The Shawshank Redemption is that the moment of beauty is related to something
else, the beyond that Robbins and Freeman reach at the end of the film.

The other points of happiness in this film are equally chancy, but within the realm of normal Hollywood business. Brunel re-cuts the film so that it has an inoffensive ending. And everybody is over the moon. It turns out to be dependent on Brunel’s taking massive amounts of a drug called Placidium. But everybody’s still over the moon. (It’s a nice name, but not as good as Don DeLillo’s comment that psychiatric drugs are named after the gods of science fiction: Seroxat, Zyprexa…)
Bruce Willis, playing “himself,” refuses to cut off his beard for a new role, protesting:
“I’m not cutting off my beard! What about my artistic integrity!” There’s other good stuff like this, as good as the producer John Self in Martin Amis’s Money explaining
to Spunk Davis why his name might not go down so well in England. (“It’d be okay if you were working with an English actor called, I don’t know, Jizz Jenkins or something…”).

There is lots of good stuff in this smoothly done film, but the problem is that it doesn’t centre around an event, happy or disastrous, that shapes things to come. It would be better called (along with most ordinary life), Stuff That Happened.

Rory O’Connor