The opportunity to explore such a cynical willingness to gut a film’s meaning for the sake of a few extra dollars is wasted. Jeremy, convinced of his genius, is no more likeable than Lou; outrageous and unfounded narcissism is just as much a turn off as greed. Even his surprise re-edit of the film, revealed to all defiantly at Cannes (complete with self-serving speech by the “artist”), does not feel like a triumph. It merely seems like one asshole has upstaged another asshole. That certainly is part of the message of What Just Happened? But Levinson’s lazy direction and archetypal caricatures weaken most of the punches. The viewer is left feeling as if what was shown was already known, already disliked.
Saving the film in certain moments, along with a low-key but smarmy turn by Sean Penn as himself, is a cameo by Bruce Willis. Also playing himself, he drives Ben to the brink by refusing to shave his ZZ Top beard and lose weight for a role, asserting his artistic freedom for what will most likely be another tepid, bloated Hollywood action film.
In all, though, the film is what it skewers, and there isn’t enough bite to the satire to leave any teeth marks. Hollywood still loves itself, and What just Happened? more or less savors, rather than indicts, the excesses.