“And Bruce Willis as himself” — Barry Levinson’s industry satire “What Just Happened?” wasn’t the buzzy Sundance hit those who made it clearly had expected, despite a bright and shiny cast of biggish names like Robert De Niro, Robin Wright Penn, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci. Catherine Keener and the aforementioned Willis. In theaters today, it’s generated mixed reviews — I’d count myself amongst the many that seem impatient with continued tales of high-larious Hollywood woe.
“What Just Happened? is a doodle, but its aura of dread seems earned,” writes David Edelstein at New York, saluting De Niro’s “killer timing” and the fact that “Barry Levinson directs snappily.” Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly agrees that the film “rambles a bit, but it has dryly obscene, laugh-out-loud lines, and its portrait of Hollywood as a giant anxiety attack is fused by De Niro, who musters a desperate, nagging warmth beneath his grumbly facade.” Nathan Rabin at the Onion AV Club lauds the way the film “retains its [source novel’s] sustained melancholy mood of low-key existential dread and dyspeptic wit.”
But everyone else finds “What Just Happened?” either toothless, stale or irrelevant. The New York Times‘ A.O Scott, who dismisses the film as mocking studio shallowness while having no sense of what depth is, wonders “Who, exactly, do Mr. Levinson and the screenwriter, Art Linson, expect to invest time and interest — to say nothing of thought or feeling — in this meandering, passive-aggressive comedy of Hollywood inconsequence?” Anthony Lane at the New Yorker has a question of his own: “Levinson has assembled a fine field of actors, no question, but the going is too easy for them underfoot; movies about movies are old ground, and what could be sweeter–cozier, even–than trampling on the follies of your trade, knowing that nothing will ever change?” Stephanie Zacharek at Salon calls it “more self-congratulatory than it is vicious, or even illuminating,” while Ella Taylor at the LA Weekly suggests that “begging for sympathy, What Just Happened? invites only schadenfreude.” “There’s not a whole lot in ‘What Just Happened?’ that would be out of place in a good ‘SNL’ skit,” writes Roger Ebert.
And I’ll give the final word to Armond White of the New York Press, recently re-elected chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle: “Every joke in Tropic Thunder, The Player, The Muse, I’ll Do Anything, even HBO’s Entourage is sharper, more incisive and funnier than those in What Just Happened.”
[Photo: “What Just Happened?”, Magnolia Pictures, 2008]