9 June 2009

WHAT JUST HAPPENED? (Dir. Barry Levinson, 2008, US) - Hollywood Angst

De Niro as Ben, the jaded Hollywood producer

Having read Art Linson's caustic book on his experiences as a Hollywood producer in which he tells it as it is, the prospect of watching the film on which the book was based filled me with dread. Directed by out of favour film maker Barry Levinson, 'What just happened?', starring Robert De Niro as Ben (Art Linson really) seemed to bypass me upon its cinematic release last year. At first I wondered why I had not been bothered to pursue this film and then remembered that it featured De Niro. Ever since his steady shift into comedy (selling out?) with forgettable films like 'Analyse This' and 'Meet the Parents', I have formed somewhat of a resistance to De Niro, the method actor turned film star on auto pilot. As the neo liberal, uncompromising and embittered Hollywood producer, for a change De Niro does not simply phone in his performance. The absence of a plot would suggest arthouse in most cases, however, this feels more like a fly on the wall documentary - a week in the life of a Hollywood producer. And for a film about the machinations of the Hollywood film industry, the autobiographical script seems cynically constructed as it offers us 'the players' as merely stylish and hyperbolic projections:

(1). The spoilt, 'method' actor who refuses to shave his beard because it may compromise his artistic integrity. Here the actor is played by Bruce Willis as Bruce Willis. In the book, the actor in question is of course Alec Baldwin who was coerced by Linson into shaving his beard for the Mamet written, 'The Edge'.

(2). The dictatorial, ruthless and apathetic studio executive who only cares about the bottom line.

(3). The director with an auteur shoulder on his chip who thinks he has made a masterpiece only to be told he does not have 'final cut' and will have to change the ending so that it has any chance of being distributed.

(4). The Hollywood star whom everyone would love to appear in their next film. Sean Penn like Willis plays himself and even makes an appearance at Cannes.

(5). The Agent is played by John Turturro as a predictable parasite who is prepared to go to any lengths to protect his property and the integrity of his client.

(6). Stanley Tucci as Scott Solomon is represented in a similarly pretentious and obnoxious manner. He stands in for the scriptwriter, David Mamet, who Linson collaborated with on 'The Untouchables' and 'The Edge'.

(7). The depressed and estranged daughter who is supposed to symbolise teen angst and youthful alienation.

(8). The ex wife (Robin Wright Penn) - emotional baggage who ultimately ends up surrendering to the emotional demands of Ben.

Robert Altman's 'The Player' is probably still the finest film made about Hollywood to date and the major flaw with this collaboration between Levinson and Linson is the predictability of it all.

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