RIORI Redux: Barry Levinson’s “What Just Happened?” Revisited


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The Players…

Robert DeNiro, Catherine Keener, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis and John Turturro, with Michael Wincott, Stanley Tucci and Kristen Stewart.


The Story…

Ben’s a harried film producer, and as his latest undertakings instruct, he’s forced to placate a lunatic director, a temperamental actor and an out-of-control production while also courting a studio head and contending with his ex. Both of them. Just a typical week in the life in ol’ Hollywierd.


The Rant (2013)

First off, sorry. I’m in a pissy mood. My back’s f*cked up, my wife’s mad at me for some offhand comment and Lou Reed f*cking died. Does this set the tone for this week’s review? Yep, and too goddam bad. The wife never cared for Lou Reed anyway. But just wait until f*ckin’ Thom Yorke dies. Then maybe I’ll bleed.

Ahem. Hi!

I know next to nothing about how Hollywood runs. From what little I do know is that it runs on money. Big, stupid money. On a budget that compares only with US Air Force cafeteria expenses. Most of the cinematic casual expenditures come out of our collective wallets in the form of tickets, streaming and popcorn. Who really gets paid through all those ducats? Well, actors for one. Overall, they’re the reasons why we go to the flicks. Sometimes we go for the directors, those who spindle the tales that keep us webbed in. The Spielbergs, the Scorseses, the Lucases…those cats. But you know who really keeps us glued?

The producers. The money behind the money. Money behind the likes of poor Ben…

One of my favorite films? Taxi Driver. DeNiro is at his epoch at losing his sh*t in that film. Second is Mean Streets. Third is GoodFellas. Fourth is The Untouchables. Fifth is whatever he’s kicking at that time. Sixth is Taxi Driver.

You get the idea.

What Just Happened? is my umpteenth favorite movie of DeNiro kicking the sh*t out of someone. It’s the first for me rooting for Bob to kick himself in the ass. And boy, does he deserve it.

Never have I seen Bob act quite so callous, disconnected and callow as I did in this hour and 45 minutes. And quite humorously too. ‘Though not quite as humorously as most may gage. Barry Levinson’s work has always been funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but snicker-worthy. To my immediate mind, the only overtly funny movie the man has ever made was Rain Man and that won an Oscar, so he scored big there. I guess. Well What Just Happened is a loss leader. You saw the cast. You read the goofy plot. It was based on an esteemed producer’s autobio.

This flick barely made a million at the box office. With that pedigree? The hell?

They all must have been in on the joke. This film was culled by said book of the same name, a tell-all in a library of tell-alls. And the Rogue’ Gallery was delicious, too (go fig). Keener as the shrewd agent, sharp as ever, took great relish in cutting Ben down to size. Character actor Michael Wincott, always a stitch, somehow transcended Tarantino and Vincent Gallo in only two scenes. Toss the final edit wheel over this way, please. And do modern film producers really use BlackBerries in this day and age? I dunno. I ain’t a producer. What do I know?

This review has been sh*tty, I know. I’m just too tired, drunk and bent up to give a clean polish here. All I can say is this: it’s probably easier working behind the stage in Hollywood than in front to make a worthwhile statement. If this concept appeals to you, then go stream the film.

Lewis Allan Reed: RIP, 1942-2013.


Rant Redux (2019)…

I know, I know. Bitter, bitter, bitter. I wasn’t lying then about the whole being pished/Lou Reed kicking the bucket bit influencing my already myopic worldview made complete by an eye patch over my right. It’s why I call alcohol a “performance enhancing drug.” That goes against its clinical definition, but when people get real drunk booze does amplify your emotions to the nth degree, for good and for ill. Actually more like both. My logic here is akin to the shock and awe surrounding the most winningest olympic athlete Michael Phelps getting busted for smoking a joint. Of my understanding (read the Pineapple Express installment), weed is definitely, defiantly not a performance enhancing drug. Phelps is half-dolphin; read it on Reddit.

Here’s my take on booze meets psyche (and I do have a point. Quit squirming): whatever you’re feeling before you hit the bottle gets multiplied tenfold at the end of the night. You feeling good? Chances are you’ll be the god karaoke later on. You feeling lousy? You’ll be crying in your beer with Merle Haggard on rotation on the TouchTunes come last call. Pugnacious? You and the bouncer will become fast friends. In any case, your emotions and convictions get tossed in a Waring blender.

As do and especially your perceptions. To wit, I watched this film in an already crap state of mind and halfway in the bag and therefore somewhat incapable of seeing Happened for what it was, which was two things: a meditation on the squishy, flexible strategies which big Hollywood deems appropriate for public consumption, and rumination on big names in small films. The first part is the real meat of the story, which swiftly becomes Ben’s white whale: dealing with Willis’ oddball behavior so that the damned film can be finished. Fine. The story is the stuff of many movies: making movies. From Sunset Boulevard to The Player Hollywood is an existential being unto itself. Make movies to make money to make more movies to make more money to make…it is a maw that cannot be fed, ever.

Director Levinson is no stranger to satire. Virtually all his films explore—or at least poke fun at—our culture’s accepted social cowardice. From obvious films like Wag The Dog, Disclosure and Good Morning, Vietnam to more “subtle” swipes with Diner, Toys and What Just Happened? Levinson has always been an imp of the perverse behind the camera. Happened is no different, it just takes its good ol’ time getting to the pie throwing.

Such pies here include puncturing the false pretense that making movies is akin to curing cancer (but won’t since research is so much more lucrative. Hence a sequel starring AIDS). Making movies isn’t that important, but existential Hollywood would never admit to that, that 5-ton whale in the room mewling and demanding more body lotion and fresh krill. Ben knows he’s in a world of hurt, totally unable to keep work at work etc. The satire here saturates every action, every cliche, every word of Ben’s hellish workaday world and we get ringside seats. Happened plays out as a cringy scales-falling-away day in the life of what every film fan understands, but never ever wants to admit to. We know there’s a lot of chicanery spread about getting a movie made, but to get such a low-key yet graphic diagram thereabouts? Ugh. It hurts. Ben is our knowing, wizened avatar, already well-acquainted with the man behind the curtain. And like Ben, he’s a figment also.

Upon review it’s best to watch Happened as a docudrama, a cautionary tale, a satire. At the end of the day it may not be the best satire on how the sausage is made in Hollywood; there have been far better (eg: Swimming With Sharks, The Player, even Sunset Boulevard, before God). But it is classic, easily digestible satire in the Levinson tradition, even if it’s subject matter is a niche market. The film worked, but creakily and not for everyone.

Maybe even me. I still grind my teeth at the thought of this movie. Was that the point, Barry? Bob?


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Overruled: a mild relent it. Despite all it’s craftsmanship, the film committed a mortal sin: it was boring. Clever? Sure. Amusing? Kind of. Engaging? It wandered.

However, Happened did offer up an opportunity for dialogue about big stars in small films, and how it reflects on their long and varied big release careers, as well as the reliable satirical Levinson edge (if only to on the nose). If you watch the film as if in a film class, it works. But who wants to take notes while watching a movie?

Oh yeah. Right.


Next Installment…

We return to the angular world of Jim Jarmusch, where Bill Murray peddles a bouquet of Broken Flowers to his lost loves that he never loved anyway.


 

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