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What Just Happened?:
Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line
by Art Linson
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "What Just Happened?"

While the film's title is too ambiguous to shed much light on director Barry Levinson's satirical comedy, the subtitle of the book on which it's based is a clarifier: "Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line." It's by first-time book author and scripter Art Linson who draws from his prolific life as a producer of such titles as "Into the Wild" and "The Black Dahlia," back to "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Dick Tracy." No producing lightweight, he.

Middle aged Ben (Robert DeNiro) is Linson's central character and alter ego, a "successful" producer--which doesn't always spell "lineup of upcoming films." The difficulties that he has to work through provides an insider view of the traps and nettles along the way of birthing a project that will actually get made, and how the juggling efforts with real life issues are fodder for the humor machine.

The subtext is, of course, the commercialization by the studios/financiers of material that may well have started out as artistic expression.

As anyone who knows the real Hollywood knows, any film starring DeNiro will have a lineup of major actors panting at the casting door, and this, with the Barry Levinson name on the directing credit ("Diner," "Tin Men," "Wag the Dog"), is no exception. And, beside the major above-the-line players, the support list reads like a platoon roster.

Bruce Willis plays himself as the prima donna star upon whose decision with regard to cutting off his outsize beard is a make-or-break for the production; Stanley Tucci is Scott Soloman, the screenwriter suffering from a case of writer's block; Robin Wright Penn is Ben's second wife, Kelly; John Turturro is Dick Bell, the slick-as-oil agent; Catherine Keener is Lou, a version of the studio exec who exerts control over runaway artistic types as well as the bottom line; and Sean Penn being idolized as himself. Hollywood loves to pay homage to its own.

Appealing to whatever universality exists for the inside scoop on the world of illusion that may arguably be one of the most powerful influences on the planet, the account of it that's offered here is well played by all, spotted with satiric chuckles and plugged-in entertainment of the famous with the public facade masks off. Or so they'd have you go along with.

DeNiro shows that he doesn't need extreme character stretches like his Captain Shakespeare in "Stardust" to preserve and extend his near-mythic force as an icon of the craft. That outing may be explained by the fact that it was his only film appearance in 2007, but hunger to work isn't too kind on a major reputation and filmography. Instead, he appeals to us here as a guy on the front lines of the studio elite who can also be related to on a human level--though only up to a point. It must be noted, his Ben, as written, doesn't exactly exude a great deal of sympathetic concern.

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Which is the Achilles heel of the film. There's a lot of boisterous irony, self-indulgency, subtle self-deprecation and, certainly, movie production drama, but not much in the way of momentous concern. Unless you're on the crew, it's difficult to get worked up over what gets made or doesn't in these distant, exalted places. The draw, for fan mag stalwarts, behind-the-scenes aficionados and the film-passionate is this A-list cast delivering a few chuckle-worthy self-stereotypes.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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