Friday, August 16, 2013

Neglected Gem #45: What Just Happened? (2008)

Robert De Niro and John Turturro in Barry Levinson's What Just Happened?

Barry Levinson’s 2008 What Just Happened? approaches Hollywood venality, greed and ego with a razor edge, an elegant style and a distanced wit – a killer combination. It’s adapted from What Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line, a juicy, deftly written and economical (150-page) memoir by producer Art Linson, who lays out the process of getting movies made in the film industry and tells amazing and often scathing stories about some of the ones he worked on, like Great Expectations, Fight Club, The Edge and Pushing Tin. (He has an earlier book, A Pound of Flesh: Perilous Tales of How to Produce Movies in Hollywood.) Here’s Linson holding forth on the subject of the pitch:

For those of you who have never been in a pitch meeting, it’s nothing much different from door-to-door sales except the financial stakes are higher. You must convince the guy with the checkbook that he needs whatever soap you are selling. I’m not sure anyone actually needs to buy an idea for a movie. If you buy an idea, you have to pay to have the script written. Writers are expensive. In most instances the scripts are badly done and only a small percentage ever get filmed. Because of the high turnover factor, the executive who winds up buying the script probably won’t even have his job by the time the wretched thing gets made and is ready for release. Either someone else will be the beneficiary of its success, or the poor sucker who was fired will inevitably be blamed for supporting it. Under these rules, I’m always amazed at the optimism that’s displayed so early on for something that might not pay off for years. 

De Niro, Barry Levinson and Art Linson on the set
Linson wrote the adaptation, and it turns out he’s a terrific screenwriter. (You can read his script in the paperback edition of the book; I’m guessing that Levinson supervised the fine tuning for the version that ended up on screen, which improves on the structure.) Linson’s alter ego, the movie’s protagonist, Ben (Robert De Niro), is balancing two challenging projects while trying to get back into the good graces of his estranged wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn). They’re seeing a therapist whose specialty is helping couples split up amicably, but Ben clearly isn’t ready to close the book on his marriage, even though he moved out two years ago. And he definitely isn’t ready for the revelation that Kelly has started sleeping with another man – especially when he finds evidence that suggests it’s Scott (Stanley Tucci), a screenwriter Ben has worked with before and hopes to work with again. So he divides his time – much of it cellphone time – among Kelly (with whom he has two young kids) and the personnel involved in his two current movies, one of which is completed and being prepped for opening night at Cannes while the other is just about to start shooting. Ben is obsessed with Kelly, but he gives her the smallest portion of that time, just as he did when they were married, because producing is an obsessive job, too, and he’s at the beck and call of people with more power than he has (studio heads), people with enough power to behave as badly as they want to (stars), and people who can’t take care of themselves (directors). The movie’s theme is power; it chronicles a series of events that has the effect of diminishing Ben’s in Hollywood.

The Cannes entry, Fiercely, is a hard-boiled post-Tarantino thriller with Sean Penn (playing himself). Its writer-director is a Cockney poseur named Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott, in a sensational comic turn) with carefully upbrushed hair, a neck tattoo and a well-rehearsed anti-establishment attitude; he affects a Keith Richards burned-out voice and he’s not above hauling out his shtetl ancestry to make himself look more authentic. When the studio tests his cut, the sickening finale – not only does Penn get shot by the bad guys, but his loyal dog dies too, their combined blood spattering the screen – the audience responds first with gasps of dismay and then, on the test cards, with fury. The studio head, Lou (Catherine Keener, wearing marvelous clothes by Ann Roth), hauls both Jeremy and Ben into her office the next day and threatens to cancel the Cannes showcase and recut the film herself if Jeremy doesn’t change the ending. Keener offers a classic small-scale portrait of a woman with so much clout that she can take a call in her office’s private bathroom (where she’s surrounded by mirror images of herself) and not worry about how it might sound to the other person on the line when she flushes the toilet; so much clout that she doesn’t have to raise her voice to eviscerate her opponent. Her icy gaze and aristocratic poise and withering irony do the job. When she’s through with Jeremy, he’s weeping and screaming and Ben has to guide him out of her office. By the time he makes it back into the editing room, he’s fallen off the wagon after a year of sobriety and Ben helps him score downers so he can get through the process of fixing the film to Lou’s satisfaction.

We don’t even see the studio head on Ben’s other picture, but he makes his presence felt. When the star, Bruce Willis, shows up overweight, with a beard that he refuses even to consider shaving, the studio head threatens, through Ben, to fire him and sue both of them. Then he hangs up on Ben and refuses to see him or speak to him until he has the situation in hand. Willis is hilarious as the narcissistic actor, who throws a cursing fit in wardrobe, knocking over one rack after another. (Willis is game enough to play the character in his own name, but readers of the book will know that he’s sending up Alec Baldwin, who behaved in precisely this fashion on the set of The Edge.) The director (Peter Jacobson) can’t control him, and his agent (John Turturro, who’s every bit as funny as Willis) is terrified of him; Willis is his most important client, and the thought of having to confront him – or any of the other names in his roster – is so daunting that it’s given him an extreme case of indigestion.

When What Just Happened? opened, the movie a number of reviewers threw up as an example of what it was missing was Robert Altman’s 1992 The Player. But enjoyable as it is, The Player is soft by comparison with Levinson’s picture (and soft by comparison with its own source material, Michael Tolkin’s novel). Nothing in Altman’s movie is half as nasty and black-comic as the comments everyone around town makes in this picture when an agent commits suicide, and nothing Altman came up with is the equal of the funeral scene in What Just Happened?, where a yarmulke-clad Willis delivers the eulogy (managing to reference his own friendship with Hunter S. Thompson) and then gets into a macho competition with Ben at the gravesite over who can wield a heftier shovel of earth – after which Ben and Scott pow-wow, funerals being as good a venue for doing business in Hollywood as, say, a restaurant or a cocktail party. As a satire of the film business, What Just Happened? is sometimes as sharp as Singin’ in the Rain and the early scenes in Sunset Boulevard. And the more outrageous it becomes, the most convincing it is.

De Niro’s in fine form here; he’s light on his feet, the way he was in Wag the Dog. (Maybe he should make more comedies with Barry Levinson.) And though her role is essentially a foil for Ben, Robin Wright Penn never missteps, and she makes Kelly’s confusion about how to manage her mixed feelings for her ex sleekly, sexily funny. (Her body language in the scenes in the therapist’s office made me laugh out loud.) The script is remarkably good about the way in which people who are no longer living together talk to each other; we also see Ben briefly with his first wife (Dey Young), with whom he shares a complicated, unforthcoming teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart), and their exchange has its own distinctive piquancy. Levinson does some of his best directing in these ex-spouse negotiations, which are redolent of intimacies that have never quite been resolved. The film – which also features perfectly calibrated bits by Ari Barak (as a starstruck Israeli backer), Lily Rabe (as Jeremy’s assistant), and Christopher Evan Welch (as a studio pollster) – should have been hailed as an instant classic. This was one of those occasions when I couldn’t help wondering if its detractors saw the same movie I did.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment