What Just Happened

DIR: Barry Levinson • WRI: Art Linson • PRO: Mark Cuban, Robert De Niro, Art Linson, Jane Rosenthal • DOP: Stéphane Fontaine • ED: Hank Corwin • DES: Stefania Cella • CAST: Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, John Turturro, Bruce Willis, Micheal Wincott

Barry Levinson and Robert De Niro reunite in this complicated story, which retells two weeks in the life of a stressed and strained Hollywood producer. De Niro stars as Ben, a Hollywood producer who struggles to balance both his personal and professional life, both of which are cluttered with conflict and confrontation. At the beginning of the story, De Niro announces prophetically ‘Power. You have it, want it, or are afraid to lose it.’ This is the basic premise of the film, as Ben struggles to retain power in every relationship in which he is involved. The film features several subplots, in each of which Ben is required to fulfil another role. As a father, lover, counsellor and professional, Ben is constantly pandering to other people’s needs.

Ben’s first test of sanity comes in the guise of his latest release, Fierce, which has all the makings of a box-office flop, due to its edgy ending, which leaves test audiences in tears of pain. Studio Chief Lou (Catherine Keener) forces Ben to deal with his eccentric director (Micheal Wincott), who, along with Sean Penn (as himself), is struggling to resist conforming to generic Hollywood storylines.

On the other hand, Ben is instructed by another studio to ensure that Bruce Willis (who stars as himself) shaves his beard, which he is flatly refusing to do. These trivial and exhausting tasks take up the majority of Ben’s daily life, leaving him drained and constantly playing catch-up. On top of his confusing professional life is his personal life, where Ben has to balance two ex-wives and three kids. Ben’s life almost exhausts the viewer as much as it does him. He evokes a great deal of empathy from the viewer as he comes across as a decent and genuine man, caught up in a web of insider politics and complicated relationships. The performances are believable and strong, with Willis mocking his own stature as one of Hollywood’s most famous actors. De Niro is convincing as the seasoned producer, whose age is beginning to show some of his limitations and weaknesses.

Levinson has explored the theme of the darker side of Hollywood before, in Jimmy Hollywood (1994), but this time injects his creation with a harsh sense of reality. Ben is never recognised for all of his work, and every character we encounter suffers from some deep-rooted sense of unhappiness or longing for another life. The film does give a good impression of the less than glamorous lifestyle which is hidden by the thin veneer of Hollywood glitz and glamour. What it really comes down to is how many favours you can collect from the people with the power.