There's a revealing tale about old Hollywood that sounds apocryphal, but it's true: Billy Wilder had just screened his noir classic Sunset Boulevard—in typical cynical Wilder style, a thinly-veiled expose of the seedy side of the movie business—for industry executives. Though some recognized it for the classic it was destined to become, MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer collared Wilder on his way out and railed at him in front of the crowd, declaring, "You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood."

All I can say is, it's a good thing Mayer didn't work in today's Hollywood, where insiders make movies like What Just Happened. Writer/producer Art Linson wrote a tell-all novel about his years in the business called What Just Happened: Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line, then fictionalized it for this screenplay, and he knows of what he speaks. His producing credits include such classics as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Untouchables, Dick Tracy, Fight Club, and Into the Wild, and it's clear he knows all about the darker sides of the movie business.

Robert De Niro as Ben

Robert De Niro as Ben

What Just Happened follows Ben (Robert De Niro), a high-flying, smooth-talking producer, through two excruciating weeks in his career. Ben has three children, two ex-wives (one he tolerates and one he pines after) and a lot of stars and creative talent to babysit. One film he produced, slated to be shown at the uber-prestigious Cannes Film Festival the next week, fails miserably with grossed-out audiences in test screenings due to its jarringly violent ending. But the director is a classic "visionary" artiste, loathe to comply with the studio head's iron-fisted mandate for a new cut.

Meanwhile, across town, Bruce Willis is on the set of his next film and steadfastly refusing to shave his beard, throwing his cowering agent (John Turturro) into conniptions and threatening everyone's job security. If he doesn't shave it, production will be shut down, and a bunch of people will be sued, including Ben, who has alimony and child support payments to be making. Oh, and Ben's ex-wife is sleeping with both Ben and screenwriter Scott Solomon (Stanley Tucci), with whom Ben is forced to maintain a good relationship for professional reasons. Eventually he somehow makes it to Cannes, where everything really starts to unravel.

Catherine Keener as Lou

Catherine Keener as Lou

This is a pretty good film, with proven talent behind it. Director Barry Levinson has had a muddled time of it in the last twenty years, with hits like Rain Man, Wag the Dog and Bugsy alongside duds like Man of the Year. What Just Happens fits right in with his catalog of insider dramas. Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (Talk to Me, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) colorfully captures the manic pace of Ben's life in Los Angeles. Produced by some of today's most successful Hollywood producers, the film could be read either as a criticism of the industry or as a cinematic airing of skeletons in the filmmaker's own closets.

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Though the movie is darkly funny, most people outside the movie business won't find themselves laughing too much. Like the Oceans franchise, it is loaded with self-referential jokes and celebrities playing exaggerated versions of themselves (Bruce Willis, who bombastically tears apart the set when Ben suggests a rendezvous with a razor and some shaving cream, is particularly good). But unlike the Oceans movies' humor, these aren't in-jokes that audiences are privy to through celebrity mags and television shows. This is, quite obviously, a film intended to make those on the inside either snicker or squirm. For everyone else, it's a bit like being at a party where you're the non-lawyer; the others laugh uproariously over law jokes, and you kind of get it, but you know it would be a lot funnier if you were on the inside.

Bruce Willis as himself

Bruce Willis as himself

De Niro is appropriately grizzled and navigates Los Angeles with an infinitesimally world-weary expression in his eyes. Ben lies to everyone and can't unplug, but we feel for him. This is a man who's in too deep and is too successful to land on his feet when he falls. He's a negotiator, a thick-skinned joint-greaser who treats his personal relationships precisely the same as the professional ones.

But what's amazing, and ultimately disappointing, about De Niro's character is that the only thing that changes is where he stands in the closing scene's Vanity Fair "powerful Hollywood producers" cover shoot. One gets the impression that he's had this week before, and he'll have it again, and the only reason this one is different is that he can squint and see that his light is starting to fade. There are others waiting in the wings to take his place the moment he stumbles—younger, more hip, and just as connected. Which again recalls Sunset Boulevard: the only difference here is that Ben, unlike Norma Desmond, isn't yet ready for his close-up.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Throughout the film, Ben tells "little white lies" to get people to do what he wants or needs them to do. What does Ben's experience say about the consequences of manipulating others? What do you suppose would happen to Ben's career if he decided to start telling the truth to everyone?
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  1. What does Romans 12:10 have to say about Ben and his colleagues, particularly during the magazine cover shoot?
  2. What could an ethical producer working in Hollywood do to treat his co-workers and friends with respect and honesty?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

What Just Happened is rated R for language, some violent images, sexual content and some drug material. As a realistic depiction of today's movie-making culture, there are rampant profanities and obscenities, in two languages. Characters talk about taking drugs. Sexual misconduct and adultery are part of everyone's lives, including Ben's 17-year-old daughter and an older man, and there is a brief glimpse of a woman's bare breast. Part of the plot hinges on a film's inappropriately and jarringly violent ending, which is shown several times.

What other Christian critics are saying:
  1. Plugged In
  2. Crosswalk
  3. Catholic News Service
  4. Past the Popcorn

What Just Happened?
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for language, some violent images, sexual content and some drug material)
Directed By
Barry Levinson
Run Time
1 hour 44 minutes
Robert De Niro, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci
Theatre Release
October 31, 2008 by Magnolia Pictures
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