Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Overlooked DVD of the month - WHAT JUST HAPPENED?

Over a decade after making the political satire WAG THE DOG, veteran Hollywood director Barry Levinson made a Hollywood satire, WHAT JUST HAPPENED? It features Robert de Niro in the thinly fictionalised role of producer Art Linson, upon whose memoirs the film is based. De Niro's character is trying to get a British auteur (Michael Wincott) to recut his movie so that the studio (Catherine Keener) will give it a Cannes premier. Meanwhile, he's trying to get Bruce Willis to shave off his beard and look the part of a leading man in his forthcoming picture. And then there's the wife he wants to reconcile with (Robin Wright Penn) despite the fact that she's sleeping with the screenwriter (Stanley Tucci); the daughter (Kristen Stewart) who's going off the rails; and the Hollywood groupies who'll do anything, any time, for an interview.

I really liked this film for exactly the reason that all the other reviewers seem to have skewered it. They complain that it isn't caustic enough - that the stakes aren't high enough. All that's at stake, they say, is the continuing functioning of the well-oiled Hollywood money-making machine. By contrast, in Altman's THE PLAYER, or indeed in Levinson's previous political satire, it was a matter of life and death. But surely the point is EXACTLY that the studios, the starlets, the directors and producers are prostituting themselves for worthless commercial dross. In SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS the movies were worth something and that partially excused the shameless behaviour. But this movie is all the more tragic because it shows just how meaningless the whole sharade is.

More superficially, this flick is great because of all the scabrous one-liners. It's eminently quotable in the way that GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS is eminently quotable. It also features a great performance from Michael Wincott as the auteur - a guy who last got a role as memorable when he played Guy of Gisbourne in the Kevin Costner's ROBIN HOOD. You also get to see Catherine Keener in one her most subtle performances as the quietly threatening studio boss who can turn on a dime if she gets a faint whiff of box-office success.

WHAT JUST HAPPENED played Sundance 2008 and Cannes, out of competition. It opened in the UK and US in winter 2008. It is available on DVD and on iTunes.

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