Hollywood needs more self-parody like it needs more pedicures and plastic surgery. Offhand I can’t think of a movie that asks us to feel sorry for Hollywood, but we are asked to relate from time to time, to walk a mile in the designer slippers of people with every earthly pleasure and convenience at their disposal and feel their pain. What could be more frivolous than a movie about a Hollywood producer whose biggest problem is getting Bruce Willis to shave his beard?
Sitting there shivering through the previews, I wasn’t particularly prepared to relate to anyone else’s problems, certainly not some Hollywood producer’s. I wondered when was the last time a Hollywood producer turned on his tap and didn’t have water, or went out to see a movie not knowing whether he’d be able to get back up his driveway. Good thing they didn’t mention the beard in Movie Shorts.
The thing is, though, I did relate—in some small, analogous, antipodal real-life way—to Robert De Niro’s harried producer in What Just Happened. We first see him at a screening of his new feature, Fiercely, before a test audience in Arizona. These special sneak previews, as you probably know, sometimes determine the outcome of the story based on what test audiences reveal in their responses—whether they like the ending, for example, or want the guy to get the girl in the end. So there’s a lot riding on it. I’ve never made a $25 million movie—my biggest budget to date is around $350—but I have made movies and I know what it’s like to watch one with an audience, antennae quivering, straining to gauge the response. I know a lot about how people walk out of movies, too, and in that respect it’s easier for De Niro’s producer character because he doesn’t know anybody in his test audience: At first people leave in ones and twos. Then at longer intervals someone will get up and a bunch of other people, emboldened, seizing the moment, will stand up and leave along with them.
These little tingles of creative recognition, you might call it, gave What Just Happened an immediate appeal for me. Then I started wondering if director Barry Levinson and writer Art Linson had been reading my mail, because I started seeing less flattering representations of myself up there. Again, unlike this producer, I’ve never gone through a divorce, but I could still recognize familiar sentiments and situations in the scenes between De Niro and Robin Wright Penn. It’s uncomfortable but also very liberating to see one’s own cowardice and childishness reflected on the big screen.
In the meantime, with parallel film clips of my own experiences looping in my mind, all these metafictional aspects began to creep into the movie. At least two characters—Bruce Willis and Sean Penn—play themselves in What Just Happened, a common feature in Hollywood self-parody that often makes it difficult to concentrate on the movie. And didn’t Penn and Wright Penn just get divorced? Is she drawing on this fresh wellspring of experience in her scenes? Did the producers have to shoot her and her ex on different days?
Metafiction is a slippery slope. Often in a movie it’s just meta lazy screenwriting, or meta self-congratulation on the part of the filmmakers, or meta product placement, and everybody just loses their place and their concentration. To avoid this pitfall, perhaps, What Just Happened attempts a kind of balancing act between meta-characters and over-the-top caricatures, and largely pulls it off.
John Turturro’s character is one of these caricatures. Turturro plays Willis’ nervous agent, whose fate is likewise nestled birdlike in Willis’ beard. He’s always retching and dry-heaving from a nervous stomach, exacerbated by withdrawal from anti-depressants so he can “get it up again.” But it’s not one of his more memorable performances. There’s a certain diffuseness to his presence, as though the writer and director originally intended to give his character more screen time to stretch out, but then changed their minds and weren’t able to distill a smaller performance from the footage they had.
On the other hand, Turturro also gets upstaged by Michael Wincott, a distinctively voiced actor if ever there was one, as the director of the movie-within-the-movie, Fiercely. Wincott is the perfect enfant terrible movie director, prone to violent tantrums and choice phrases in his rasping Cockney accent. Catherine Keener is nice and understated as the imperious studio boss to whom De Niro must answer for Fiercely. Willis, as himself, seems strangely at home trashing wardrobe departments and threatening directors over the “artistic integrity” of his beard. He’s an arrogant, intransigent ass until right at the end, when he redeems himself slightly but without a trace of contrition or humility. For all but a handful of people, of course, it’s impossible to determine how faithfully an actor plays himself. But Willis is definitely a credible egomaniac here. Plus I could relate to the beard on several levels, as both a former grower and a self-styled defender of unpopular artistic choices.
Part of me, of course, was just glad to be in a nice, warm theater, out of the weather and escaping my worries for a couple of hours. But I think What Just Happened would have won me over with almost any other day. Another part of me, a little more cynical, thinks it’s time to reread The Day of the Locust.
What Just Happened concludes its run at the Wilma Thratre Thursday, Dec. 18.