What Just Happened? is a story based on the life of its own writer-producer, Art Linson. The film could be faulted for being another masturbatory exercise in Hollywood narcissism, but that’s really nothing new. Not only is Hollywood vain, it knows it, and has even made films addressing the said topic. Film itself, though, has always struck me as the most “self-absorbed” of any medium (exceeded only perhaps by performance art). The audience is invited to engage in the director’s fantasy played out for them on a screen that takes on the “eyes” of that auteur.
In reality, of course, there is more than just the singular auteur at work on a modern Hollywood film. There are the actors, screenwriter(s), the studio heads and the producer, whose role is the subject of this film. Robert De Niro plays Ben, a seasoned producer whose current problems involve, among other things, weathering his second divorce. His wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn) is forcing him to go through separation counseling, a post-marriage deprogramming course designed to help prevent the couple from ever wanting to get back together again. His attention to this problem, however, is often diverted by managing a crisis between studio heads and Bruce Willis (playing himself), who shows up vis-à-vis Marlon Brando on the set of Apocalypse Now, overweight and sporting a six-month beard. Meanwhile, Ben is attempting to help put the finishing touches on his Cannes racehorse by coaxing the addict-director into softening the finale’s brutal violence in accordance with studio wishes. In one telling scene he sits in a studio waiting room adorned by movie posters without any writing except the movie’s final gross. The director with him looks around in horror, but it’s just business for Ben.
In Ben’s world there is no honor, just competing desires. Actors and directors clamor for artistic integrity, but in reality artistic vision is only license for their own selfishness. The studios, on the other hand, stroke the egos of artists while simultaneously breaking their balls. Because Ben is just a middle man trying to skim money off the top at the intersection of art and business, he is viewed with suspicion from both sides. In the very beginning, Ben speaks in a narrative voiceover (a device that is almost forgotten for most of the film, then picked up once more in the very end): He does it all for the sake of power, or at least the veneer of power. The moment of truth that supposedly judges his success is a photo shoot of the 30 most powerful people in Hollywood. Ben knows placement in this is key, and he hopes to be somewhere between the O and the W of the backdrop word “POWER.” It’s absurd, but Ben stakes his whole greatness on this very moment.
This is supposed to be the metaphor for the whole film: Hollywood is a world in which a shallow photo shoot can have devastatingly high stakes. There are a few moments in which Ben seems to recognize the ridiculousness of the world he inhabits, but his own investment in it is so complete, to acknowledge the meaninglessness of it would be to give up everything for which he has struggled. In reality, Ben is just as selfish as those who make him miserable.
Generally, the film is a compelling portrait of Hollywood egoism, though it suffers from this very egoism itself. It’s hard to tell where the film is representing reality, and where it is representing a caricature of reality. Actors like Willis and Sean Penn play themselves (or glosses on their own public personalities), and others like De Niro play a caricature of the film’s own producer (Linson). The moments in the film that feel most truthful are the fictionalized parts, and the ones that feel most outlandish are the ones in which real actors make appearances in the fictionalized world. The film revels at times in its own jumping the shark (similar to the moment in Oceans Twelve when Julia Roberts plays a character imitating her real self). These moments try to blur the line between fiction and meta-fiction. Not well crafted enough to be satisfyingly postmodern (like Adaptation. or Being John Malkovich), nor well framed enough to be a film-within-a-film (like Singing in the Rain), What Just Happened? suffers some of the same problems as Stranger Than Fiction. It uses postmodern devices to set up a story and then loses them along the way when it tries to bring the film to a satisfying conclusion.