Based on a 2002 memoir by producer Art Linson (Fight Club, Into The Wild), What Just Happened? continues the line of self-obsessed Hollywood vehicles like The Player and Entourage, wherein the evils and shallowness of the business are brutally explored but nevertheless celebrated. Here, director Barry Levinson manages to get a good performance from Robert DeNiro (who has phoned in about a decade's worth of work) as Ben, the harried and ruthless producer who yet is always acquiescing to higher authorities. He is also still in love with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn), a sub-plot that seems added on to humanize but goes nowhere. Ben has to juggle appeasing a studio boss Lou (Catherine Keener) who is none too happy about the movie delivered by arty-director, Keith Richards wanna-be Jeremy (Michael Wincott). Jeremy has made a gritty Tarantino blood feast starring Sean Penn, complete with a graphic dog shooting in a gory, bathetic finale. Lou's basic reason for wanting the film re-edited, in addition to appalled reactions from test audiences, is that with the film re-cut she could lose a little less money on it.
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.