“What Just Happened?” is an industry in-joke between director Barry Levinson and his friends, who just happen to be Hollywood’s heavy weights.
Ben (Robert De Niro) is a movie producer who’s at the top of his professional game but floundering in his personal life. Living alone in a sparsely furnished apartment, he spends his mornings shuttling between the lavish mansions of his ex-wives in order to take his kids to school, which is about the most quality time he can spare from his hectic day. Things are further complicated by the fact that he and his latest ex Kelly (Robin Wright Penn) obviously have unresolved feelings to discuss, if only he didn’t have to answer his cell phone every two minutes. Ben’s plate is more than full; he has to convince an eccentric director (Michael Wincott) to change his artistic vision before studio exec Lou (Catherine Keener) pulls the plug on the entire project. Even worse, the fate of Ben’s next production hinges on whether or not he can convince Bruce Willis to shave his beard.
The extensive cast includes stars playing parts, such as John Turturro and Stanley Tucci, and stars playing themselves, like Willis and Sean Penn. Willis, around whom much of the plot revolves, is particularly willing to send himself up for the sake of a laugh, pitching truly diva-sized tantrums about his facial hair. Throughout the mayhem, Ben is in full damage control mode, racing against the clock to bring his deals in on time. Like flipping through the tabloids while waiting in line at the supermarket, “What Just Happened?” gives the viewer a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes action and the thrill of famous faces trotted across the screen. But just like celebrity magazines, the film is also short on plot and in point. Nothing is ever really at stake: Ben’s not going to lose his job, he’s not going to lose his family, and he’s not going to change anytime in the near future.
Robert Altman’s “The Player” it’s definitely not; nothing cuts to the bone, there’s no incisive exploration of Tinseltown here. There are, however, enough easily identifiable characters and humorous episodes that industry insiders recognize from their own experience that they will smile and chuckle while nudging each other and shaking their heads. Which is not to say that others can’t enjoy it as well—after all, we’re the ones buying the trash mags, right?