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October 20, 2008 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | October 20, 2008 |

I have no fucking idea what happened. I was immediately struck by the indifference of ennui-laden amnesia that affects football fans on the weeks when their teams have a bye. Sure, football’s on, and some of these games matter, but really, I can’t build up enough of an emotion to be irritated or elated. So it goes with Barry Levinson’s latest project.

What Just Happened? (since nobody has ever heard of it and probably never will) is the story of a Hollywood film producer (Robert De Niro) who is struggling with his ex-wives, temperamental celebrities, and the ins-and-outs and agonies of making movies! At least, that’s probably what it would say on the Netflix slip in the approximately two weeks it should take for this to sluice out of theatres. It’s a lot like watching a movie about a pool boy. There’s probably going to be some manufactured sex scenes with lonely desperate women with too much time on their hands, and there’s going to potentially be a couple of amusing characters traipsing through, some saying funny things, but ultimately it’s about a job that nobody really wants to watch for almost two hours.

De Niro’s producing one movie starring Sean Penn (as himself) where Penn gets shot dead by a gang of thugs. They then shoot his dog in the head. Not a bang with the dog off screen, you see the bullet go through the dog’s head. (Which was the most brilliant part of this entire movie.) The director (Michael Wincott), an emotional Brit, bemoans artistry, while the steel vagina-ed studio exec Lou (Catherine Keener) demands they make changes or she’ll pull their premiere at Cannes (which I finally found out is pronounced CAN not CON). De Niro’s also trying to make a movie with Bruce Willis (as himself), but Bruce is throwing a tantrum because he’s made artistic choices to gain weight and grow a giant grizzly beard, which he refuses to shave. Oh, and De Niro is conflicted about his ex-wives and his relationship with his kids and blah blah blah. It could have been a sharp black comedy in the vein of The Player or Burn Hollywood Burn, but instead, it kind of devolves into this whole mid-life crisis ordeal film with no clear direction or stakes in any way.

The film is kind of like steamed rice with a Chinese meal. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just there. It’s pretty hard to fuck it up, but there’s no real way to make it taste amazing. It’s just going to be there. I don’t know if Levinson set out to make a movie for studio executives and industry people to laugh at themselves, or if he intended to make something for laypeople to assume the industry operates like this, or even if it’s really supposed to be an industry movie. It’s the kind of bland storytelling and fictionalization you’d expect from a first-time filmmaker. If a kid worked at Barnes and Noble his whole life and lived in Alabama, the movie’d be about the bookstore industry and set in Mobile. Levinson, and his writer Art Linson (who’s also a producer and based this on his book) are movie producers from Hollywood, so they wrote a movie about movie producers in Hollywood. It’s a lot like Tin Cup, one of Levinson’s better movies, only it’s really unfocused and about something less interesting than professional golf.

I can’t even muster up enough guff to give it a meh. It’s acted wonderfully, but look at the cast: Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Catherine Keener, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, Robin Wright Penn, Sean Penn, Michael Wincott and Kristen Stewart. Of course it’s going to be good. These are all outstanding actors in their own right (and I’m begrudgingly admitting that about Sean Penn, who I cannot stand), and they all show up and nail their parts. Yet it’s akin to having Aretha Franklin sing “Rock and Roll, Part 2”. Sure, those HEY!s are gonna sound great, but you could be putting her to better use.

It’s not a terrible film so much as something you just won’t care about. It’s got a couple of hearty chuckle moments and a couple funny lines, but once the lights came up, I couldn’t recall one of them. There is nothing (aside from the dog getting its brains blown all over the lens) you’re going to tell your friends about. It’s the kind of movie that’ll keep dropping down in your Netflix queue until you forget to replace it with something better that came out, and you’ll pop it in, watch it, and go, “Hmm. Really?” Then you’ll pick up a book or make a snack for yourself and forget it’s even on.

Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.

What Just Happened? / Brian Prisco

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