What Just Happened

p>Chances are, unless you like to spend afternoons lounging poolside obsessively scanning every word of Variety on your Blackberry, you probably don't give a shit about the plight of poor, downtrodden movie moguls. Public indifference never stops filmmakers from routinely turning out navel-gazing works about the rigors of show biz, which tend to be ignored even if they're as fascinating and well-crafted as What Just Happened. Based on producer Art Linson's insider memoir, it's also easy to detect hints of autobiography on the part of director-producer Barry Levinson, who's offering a mea culpa while vigorously washing his hands.

In one of his more interesting recent turns, Robert De Niro plays high-powered but slowly sinking producer Ben, a guy overwhelmed by diva directors, petulant actors, heartless corporate masters, tasteless foreign financiers and an ex-wife who can't forgive him his excesses in the light of all this.

The film follows Ben on a particularly harried week. With a Bluetooth attached, he's driving around Los Angeles in his SUV, juggling multiple projects that are verging on collapse while his home life's in total ruin. He's got a gritty indie crime drama that stars Sean Penn (who plays himself here) and is directed by childishly temperamental Jeremy (Michael Wincott), who refuses to recut the film's downer ending. When the ball-busting studio chief (Catherine Keener) demands that violent bits get trimmed, Jeremy throws a table-pounding tantrum, but Ben's the one who gets hammered. Worse, he's got a big-budget action flick ready to roll, except that its star Bruce Willis (also as himself) angrily refuses to shave off his ZZ Top-thick beard, citing "artistic integrity."

Plenty of other talented actors appear — including Stanley Tucci and John Turturro — occasionally in wickedly funny bits, which, somehow, feel castoff.

Ultimately the weight of the movie rests on De Niro's broad, sagging shoulders. But his gloomy presence drags scenes down and you can't believe he'd ever take this kind of crap from anyone. An actor with a lighter touch might have helped.

While Levinson used to make funny movies (Diner, Good Morning Vietnam), his heart's never been in comedy because too much pathos kills his punch lines. His impressive ability to swiftly suck funniness out of any situation is the biggest problem, with drama too intense to recognize it's supposed to be brutally sharp satire.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].