What Just Happened

Director: Barry Levinson
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Robin Wright Penn, Catherine Keener, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn
1 star (out of five)

The press blurb for Barry Levinson‘s masturbatory Hollywood dud promises a “sharp” comedy, but this thing is as about as sharp as a Nerf basketball. It’s like listening to your dad drink crap beer and sit around for an hour and fifty minutes complaining about how everyone at the office/factory is an idiot. Only the office is Hollywood, and your dad is Robert DeNiro, who remains an excellent actor even in a self-indulgent, crassly art-hating, smug piece of rotting meat like this.

Problem One: Hollywood thinks it’s interesting.
Problem Two: Specifically, Hollywood executives think that they and their struggles are interesting outside their insular little bubble world, when if “the masses” are interested in anything, it’s who makes mean eyes at whom when Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston cross paths at the Beverly Center or, for an even more limited subset, whether it’s possible that Kim Kardashian’s butt is less than 80 percent silicone. (Actual quote from an online article I just googled in the process of writing that joke: Plastic surgeon Dr. Tony Youn said, “While her [Kim’s] bottom does appear to jut out unnaturally, this may, in fact, be hereditary. I have seen some patients with similar figures who have not had any work done.” Do you feel dirtier now? I do. But you’ll still click to see whether there are pictures.)

Meanwhile, back at the review:

Problem Three: Producers? Not heroic. Ben Stiller’s recent Hollywood sendup, Tropic Thunder, had the good sense to make the producer an over-the-top bastard, used sparingly, and to kill the director in the first 20 minutes. Here, DeNiro is a producer as the unironic hero of the film, a hapless dealmaker in a polarized world of raving nutjobs and callous money people. The latter group usually includes the producers, but here DeNiro’s a workin’ stiff just trying to make his mortgage and child support while smoothing everyone’s ruffled feathers. Neither an artist nor a businessman, he stands for nothing, and therefore his struggles are as inherently boring as a $25 bottle of scotch–neither cheap enough to raise an eyebrow, nor good enough to be worth drinking. But the consumer is left with a headache and a bad aftertaste. Hence the comparison to this movie.

Problem Four: His personal life. He’s ruined it himself, through laziness, selfishness or plain old weakness. He may love his ex, and at least one of his three daughters, but he never attempts to be worthy of them. That neither character nor filmmakers are aware of this is like novocaine for the soul. Actually, no … that sounds kinda cool. This is just sucky.

Problem Five: The art-hating. DeNiro has three problems in this movie, two of them professional. In the first, the blandly hardassed studio chief (played with uncommon lack of flair by Catherine Keener) orders DeNiro to get a crazed, passionate director, whose drug relapse DeNiro encourages, to recut his downbeat Sean Penn film to be more commercial. The director’s ending is presented as pretentious, nihilistic crap, so we’re pushed to side with the money people.

DeNiro’s other crisis is Bruce Willis, who plays himself as a deranged narcissist who demands to act in his next action movie with a paunch and a full beard. Willis, tearing up dressing rooms, claims it’s “artistic choice,” and so we are presented with the second example of artists sticking to their vision as being stupid and self-absorbed, while the studio ticketcounters who want nothing more than to make a lot of money are absolutely in the right.

But you know what? Screw you, moneychasers. I don’t go to the movies to see commercialism perfected. I go looking for some bit of passion, creativity and beauty that might somehow survive the heartlessly capitalist minefield that is the production and distribution process. I don’t think we could have been presented with a scenario more loathing of creativity and artists unless it involved presenting a Lifetime Achievement Oscar to the vile hack who makes those Saw movies. What do you expect? The movie was written (wait for it) by a producer. Based (waaaait …) on his memoir.
Is there something good here? If it weren’t for the soul-crushing hatred of artists, I’d give the film two, two and a half stars for professional craftsmanship. Oh, and Bruce Willis is to be commended for playing himself as an unlikable psychotic, without a bit of mugging or winking to the camera to remind us that he’s a good guy just playin’ along. It’s braver that way. Also, Robin Wright Penn as Deniro’s (most recent) ex-wife. She and DeNiro play a tension and indecisiveness in which they layer volumes of subtext into the most banal scenes, and that’s kind of impressive. Like someone smacking you in the face with a brick, but thrown from thirty yards. You don’t enjoy the experience, but you have to admire the technique.

Back to the suckage: The film goes so obtuse with its insider references that only longtime Hollywood veterans can get, it would be insulting if, you know, it weren’t this film doing it.

Oh, hey, good news. In case you were afraid the title meant you would have to watch the film and then, um, figure out what just happened? Relax. At the end, after all of DeNiro’s failures, we get a scene that symbolizes (in a pathetically vain way) him being marginalized, pushed out of Hollywood’s power elite. How do we know this? Because as DeNiro is being literally marginalized, as a metaphor for him being symbolically marginalized, he literally tells us in voice-over, “And this scene here, it’s symbolic of me being marginalized. Also, this handful of dog shit? It’s also a metaphor. For a handful of dog shit.”

You want to feel insulted, but you’re too numb to feel anything at all, possibly ever again, except cold, dull despair. In that regard, it’s like a two-hour tongue kiss with the last six months of economic news. Anyway, you really can’t blame the film for talking down to you. After you’ve sat through to the end of that movie, the filmmakers have every reason to believe you’re stupid.