There’s a really long and somewhat unruly lineage of Hollywood film aping a self reflex bent and castigating the goings ons the most normal folks not engaged with the industry just aren’t privy to. Everything from The Player back to Barton Fink and even the Jack Palance starring, Robert Aldrich directed The Big Knife comment on the travesty that is the Hollywood studio system.
In that, What Just Happened doesn’t present itself as anything relentlessly new and adventuresome. But starring Robert De Niro, the film deserves a glance if not two. But that’s about it.
Using a pretty trite frame at this point, an estranged couple soldered together by its children, De Niro and the every lovely Robin Wright Penn, Sean’s wife until not too long after the completion of the film in which he also plays an peripheral role, have a back and forth thing not uncommon or unimaginable. The familial angle gets a bit over played when one of De Niro’s character’s associates offs himself and in a round about way reveals that Zoe, De Niro’s daughter in the film, was intimate with the dead guy. OK. That’s messed up, she’s underage and all. But the supposed-to-be shocking revelation doesn’t amount to much in the film, its narrative or in audience reactions. It’s just something that was tossed into the plot to seemingly complicate things. It doesn’t.
What does make the film come off as immediate, if only briefly, is when the De Niro character is engaged with Bruce Willis, who is here portraying himself. And while Willis isn’t a good actor most of the time, he’s a bit better as himself. But that only raises the question of whether or not he’s acting.
The majority of the plot actually revolves around the actor as actor refusing to shave his beard off for a production that’s slated to begin in a few days. As De Niro’s character is signed on as producer the problem becomes his own. And without any cooperation from his lead actor, De Niro encounters a series of threats from the studio head, only complicating the personal life that’s been torn asunder by divorce – and separation counseling. Who even knew that existed.
What Just Happened and the enjoyment of the film really just comes down to whether or not you find watching rich people sort through the minutiae of business entertaining or not. There’s nothing overtly startling – although a dog gets shot, but it’s a film within the film – or new here. Just a few scenes of De Niro acting well. That’s it.