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.


 

RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 10: Barry Levinson’s “What Just Happened?” (2008)


Image


The Players…

Robert DeNiro, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, John Turturro and Katherine Keener.


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…

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…


Ben (DeNiro) is a wayward Hollywood producer who’s reputation is far more valuable than any increment of money he earns on a project. And the word “project” serves as an acceptable epithet for any film that’s gonna tank before it reaches the cutting room floor. As for what has presently been laid at his feet, Ben’s gotta make a marketable film out of an artsy-fartsy ‘aueter’ piece of sh*t. Oy, I’ve seen them many times over. Maybe you have too. Listen, just because they went to Cannes doesn’t mean they’re all winners. Pulp Fiction won the Palm d’Or, for example, a fine piece of f*cking filmmaking if your attention span is that strained. And I liked Pulp Fiction. F*cking Beetlejuice went to Cannes, so shut up. And if you are enamored of Beetlejuice, you take this f*cking blog WAY too seriously.

Anyway, about Ben. He’s been trying to restore his place in the pantheon of power players in Tinsel Town. And failing gloriously. He’s a passing presence in his second marriage, the one with two kids. An offhand glance with his first marriage, the one with the moody teen (portrayed by a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart). And a total misfit amongst his true family of agents, fellow producers, directors, and petulant actors (Willis and Penn). Hung up and overstretched, what’s a flayed Hollywood producer whose worth more dead than alive can do?

Lose his sh*t. DeNiro is good at that…


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.


The Verdict…

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


Stray Observations…

  • “Stress. Builds up. See you later.”
  • Willis looks like a homeless Santa with that beard.
  • DeNiro really trimmed down for this role. What for?
  • “Feet are connected to the soul.” So are shoes.
  • Wait. Is that the Police playing at the funeral?
  • Nothin’ like slaggin’ on ol’ Hollywood at Cannes to get a standin’ O.
  • “Life’s not bad. I’m in France.”

Next Installment…

Bill Murray goes door to door peddling Broken Flowers. Dumbass.


 

RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 9: David O Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)


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The Players…

Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver and Chris Tucker, with Johnny Ortiz, Julia Stiles and Shea Wigham.


The Story…

After a stint in a psychiatric hospital, bipolar Pat has no choice but to move back in with his Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed family. While he tries in vain to reconcile with his estranged wife, Pat meets Tiffany who’s just as unstable as he is. Like attracts like and all that. Tiffany hears Pat’s plight and offers him a deal: she’ll get in touch with his wife of him if he’ll do her a favor. Pat’ll do anything to fix his marriage, but wait…

Swing dancing? Really?


The Rant…

This may be my most personal review to date. Bear with me.

Two things before I get started. The first is practical. For the previous eight installments, I have based these reviews on the principle of “lack of box office mojo either/or of dubious reputation.” From now on, I shall refer to this criterion simply as “The Standard.” It’ll save time, and for those who need an explanation, please read my homepage. Don’t forget to Like it.

The second thing is trying to explain away how an Oscar-winning film like Silver Linings Playbook meets The Standard. I mean, it cleaned up at the box office. It earned several accolades. The star of the freakin’ Hangover films got an Oscar nod, before God. How does this movie meet the criteria?

The subject matter. A lot of folks who saw the film (at least folks I met) claimed that although the movie was good, Cooper’s acting was overreaching. His manic delivery was exactly the stuff of the Method, and I guess current audiences find that old hat. It works, yes, but these days people with a vestigial attention span demand the shiny. It’s still entertaining though, even if wide of the mark. Then again, what do the majority of filmgoers know what it’s like to endure a manic episode? Right.

Mental illness has long been a favorite well for Hollywood to dip from. Whether it’s Ordinary People for survivor’s guilt, The Deer Hunter for PTSD or The Silence Of The Lambs for sociopathy, crazy sells well at the ticket taker. The stuff’s a guilty pleasure for the gentry. It’s like the car wreck on the highway. You just gotta look—be witness to the wreck and ruin—and at the near back of your mind thank your lucky stars that that ain’t you. Being in the presence of an individual suffering from mental illness, be it depression, bipolar disorder, even outright psychosis is akin to the car wreck scenario. Sure, you’ll sneak a peek, but you’ll then recoil and be glad to not get any of it on you. It’s sort of a malign guilty pleasure for most.

Most well-healed folks figure they don’t ever have to worry about the crazy label. Life is normal for them, or for whatever passes for normal. Yet there are thousands of people out there who have to deal with the misfiring spark plugs upstairs every waking moment, yet still have to maintain a life. They don’t necessarily suffer in silence, but feel silenced all the same, especially against all those stares. Unless such sh*t ends up on the cover of People—and Heaven forbid Kim and Kanye’s spawn grow up to suffer from an eating disorder—then it’s in the public interest. Following that lead, how’s that for a dubious reputation?

As I was saying, Playbook made some waves with its depiction of bipolar disorder suffered by the lead Cooper. From personal experience, I say its depiction was straight on. This may get a little too personal, even for a blog, but I don’t really care. Others, I have found, have posted far more intimate and nuttier stuff than I would ever regard as appropriate. You ever truly look deeply at some of these profile and/or cover pictures? I mean, c’mon.

I suffer from bipolar disorder. Don’t laugh; I’m serious. I have a constant, intrusive internal monologue, often puking out into an external one. There’s the racing thoughts. The low-level paranoia. The occasional raging. The often crushing depression. It’s all there everyday for me, America, and for thousands of others, too. Like Pat, only therapy and meds make life work, and only in a wobbly way at that. It’s tough. And surprisingly enough, Cooper earned an Oscar nod for his portrayal. Yeah, best actor and alla dat.

Why should I say surprisingly? C’mon, this guy made a fortune portraying a guy slogged off on roofies and/or booze for three films for f*ck’s sake. What the hell business does he have starring in an Oscar-nominated film?

Because he sold it. Because he earned it. Because he got it right…


Pat Solitano, Jr. (Cooper) has just spent eight months in a Baltimore sanitarium. Better that than instead going to jail for beating the ever-loving sh*t out of his wife’s erstwhile lover. Understandable. The diagnosis comes clean. Pat has suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. For a while now. Prone to erratic behavior and fits of rage. Since being hopped up on drugs, therapy and isolation, he finally earns release into the hands of his Philadelphia Eagles fanatic family of superstitious dad (DeNiro), struggling referee mom (Weaver) and good son Jake (Wigham). Now dealing with these three in full force, Baltimore seems preferable.

Pat delves into books and in-group double speak (“Excelsior!”), not-so-secretly plotting to reconnect with his estranged wife Nikki (Brea Bee, a name I refuse to believe is real). He wears his wedding band as a totem, waving it to all willing to watch, as a claim on a life that, frankly, has all but evaporated.

It’s only after an offhand encounter with old buddy Ronnie (Ortiz) and his bitchy wife Veronica (Stiles, who’d I wish to fall on a red hot poker) that Pat accepts a dinner invite and meets Veronica’s screwed up dancer of a little sis Tiffany (Lawrence). She’s been going through some issues of her own. Being distraught and remorseful for her husband’s death, and engaging in a rather dubious mourning recovery, Tiffany inadvertently holds out her hand for Pat’s support.

At first, the already damaged Pat is reluctant to help. However Tiffany offers up a deal. Pat’s wife is off limits due to a restraining order, effectively barring all contact. But Tiff knows Nikki, and can get a message to her proclaiming Pat’s new lease on life. In return for this little subterfuge, Tiffany has always wanted to compete in this dance competition and needs a partner. Quid pro quo.

And here’s where things get sticky, even after Baltimore…


Playbook was a smart, humorous and at times intense movie. A hard combo to work with. According to the dailies, it took director Russell 20 rewrites over five years to get the film just right. Good Lord. It worked though.

Playbook is a mass character study, so we’re gonna talk about our cast. A lot. First, Bradley Cooper really surprised me, just as much as most other critics were (who, unlike yours truly, actually get paid to do this sh*t). His depiction of bipolar disorder was spot f*cking on. The raging, the paranoia, the endless hang-ups. The label of being f*cking nuts. All there. As if to accentuate Pat’s struggles, it rather hurt when in the film the local law came to harass and/or bully poor Pat over the head about his restraining order. Sometimes it felt for just him it being out in public was enough for a drubbing. Car wreck culture and all. Ugh. Even if your brain is firing on all cylinders, it’s hard to watch. It’s also a great method employing “show, don’t tell,” and with a character study, you gotta show a lot of face time.

Something else key was apparent that I often bitch about for lack of in these posts: good pacing. Nothing in Playbook felt rushed. The story folded out as easily as a box of Kleenex, minus the lint. Two-plus hours stretched gracefully into a good evening’s entertainment. Face it, when you’re spending your free time on a film heavy on mental illness it better flow smoothly. Hell, that’s all I (or anyone else) should ask for.

In addition to the excellent pacing, of course the acting was great. There were no minor characters in the film. I know that follows the old saw of there being no small parts, but with Playbook each role was crucial in mirroring Pat’s new life post-hospitalization. A lot of films of this nature have roles that drop off the map halfway through the feature. Not here. “Lesser” roles like Ronnie and his patient therapist Dr. Patel offered insight and warmth (not necessarily sympathy) to Pat’s struggles. It’s a contained circle, one you get comfortable with as it creates a real sense of closure as the film winds down.

Other touches work well to reflect Pat’s picking up the pieces. The choice of music for instance (a pet cinematic enhancement of mine) was exceptional. Led Zep makes for the ideal soundtrack for a mental meltdown. And if your heart doesn’t crack a little for the sequence accompanied by Bob Dylan’s and Johnny Cash’s duet of “Girl From the North Country,” you have no soul (it’s from Nashville Skyline by the way. Go buy the damned album).

Considering the rest of the noteworthy cast, Chris Tucker is a stitch, but not in his mouthy Rush Hour style. He’s the lingering vestige of the sh*t Pat had to deal with and suck up to in Baltimore. He keeps popping up in Pat’s life on the outside not as the Magic Negro, but perhaps as a reminder as to what he was trying to leave behind, despite the fact it’s still stuck in his BP rattled head. He also ends up teaching Pat all about groove. This is important. Delightfully so.

DeNiro was also nominated for an Oscar in this one. It’s the first worthwhile role he’s played in along time, and for his limited screen time, Russell brings out the best in him. Although it takes several scenes, it becomes easy to understand why he got the nod. He’s brusque, he’s hammy, he’s f*cking petulant. He may have inadvertently contributed to Pat’s undoing, him being all superstitious and OCD. Always gambling. He took a gamble on Pat and ostensibly lost. Many times. Bob does lot of pure acting with just his scowly yet puppy dog jowls of his. Haven’t seen that since Casino. I could go on, but it would ruin the sub-plot.

Oddly, Weaver got an Oscar nomination too, although at first it’s hard to figure why. She doesn’t have many lines, and her screen time seems limited to only when Pat and/or his dad are roiling in their own psychological juices. However, she also seems to be the only one who is pointedly aware and truly sympathetic to what Pat has gone and still is going through. Pat’s her son after all. Understanding is crucial in the healing process, and you need that kind of presence to make the story have a tonic to the continuous conflict. In that light, Weaver is in the Goldilocks zone.

And lastly, Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany. Ah, her. She won the Oscar, you know. Her Tiffany is nuts, just stark-raving oozing kooky nuts. But just to watch her…I’ll be crude. No I won’t. You can be crude. But hell, she can act, all fiery without chewing scenery and hold her own as if she wrote the script. She has confidence and a strong presence that permeates every scene she’s in, eclipsing star Cooper at times. Simultaneously, she has a particular vulnerability that, if employed in other films, may come across as mawkish. Here it generates a feeling not exactly of compassion, but one more of relatability despite the extraordinary circumstances handed to her. And she can dance. And run at a good clip, too. And oddly enough, heh-heh, so can Pat, just don’t take her to a diner on a first date. You just gotta see it to get it.

I have next to no carps with this movie. Save a Hollywood ending, Playbook was truly compassionate in its execution and acting. Is it because I’m sympathetic? Well, yeah. But only because here’s a film that depicts a hairy subject 90% correct. The remaining 10% is courtesy of Tinsel Town, cuz sumpin’s gotta sell tickets. The story is the car-wreck scenario, but tempered with just enough sugar with the urine that an audience can feel empathy rather than unease or scorn towards the psychologically challenged. It’s simply a cagey nevertheless excellently staged film

Yeah, excellently staged. Smart dialogue. Solid acting. Hall rented. Orchestra engaged. Now it’s time to see if you can dance.

If only somebody had told Lawrence to mind the step.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It earned the Oscar nominations for a reason. Plus renting it’ll keep the rabid, demon, flying monkeys in my head at bay.


Stray Observations…

  • “DeSean Jackson is the man.” Of that I have no doubt.
  • Jennifer Lawrence stares really well. She never seems to blink. Maybe it’s how she nabbed that Oscar. Hell, it worked for Anthony Hopkins, but then again, she has better cleavage. Way better cleavage.
  • “You have poor social skills. You have a problem.”
  • It seems that a small portion of this film was good promo for an iPod. The movie was made in 2012. Who didn’t have an iPod by then? (For those who don’t, just shut up.)
  • For the record, it’s pronounced ‘conk,’ not ‘conch’.
  • “Slow down, Raisin Bran.”

Next Installment…

Robert DeNiro asks the immortal question, What Just Happened?