Monday, November 3, 2008

Celluloid Neros

Does anyone still care about Hollywood satire?

What Just Happened, directed by Barry Levinson, is a breezy satirical comedy about Hollywood, based on veteran movie producer Art Linson’s memoir What Just Happened: Bitter Tales from the Hollywood Front Line.

Linson, who wrote the screenplay, produced the well-regarded The Untouchables and Fight Club and the not so well-regarded Pushing Tin and Great Expectations remake. Robert De Niro stars as Ben, an aging producer struggling to hold onto his A-list ranking while dealing with multiple personal and professional headaches. Ben’s newest movie, a violent action picture starring Sean Penn, has evoked hostility and revulsion among test audiences because of a shocking scene involving the hero’s dog. The tough studio chief, Lou (Catherine Keener) insists that the offending frames be removed, and the temperamental, pill-popping director (Michael Wincott) rebels. (The story seems to be based on the studio’s negative reaction to Fight Club.) Ben’s next film is jeopardized when egomaniacal star Bruce Willis shows up overweight and with a Rutherford B. Hayes-style beard that he violently refuses to shave — a story based on a similar incident involving Alec Baldwin. Ben must persuade Willis’ nervous agent, Dick (John Turturro) to get Willis to shave before shooting starts, a drama that builds to improbably huge proportions.

Ben’s personal life is also complicated. Twice divorced, he still pines for his most recent ex, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), a passion further inflamed when he discovers she’s sleeping with his married screenwriter pal Scott (Stanley Tucci). With splendidly fast-paced editing by Hank Corwin, Levinson creates an entertaining landscape of phone calls, lunch meetings, tantrums, opportunistic sex, Ecstasy and ego-stroking.

As Hollywood satires go, however, this one is pretty mild — none of the dark sardonicism of The Day of the Locust or Robert Altman’s The Player. And, this being Linson’s story, Ben, the character based on him, is rather vanilla: a basically nice guy to whom crazy things happen. The movie is nonetheless amusing and enjoyable, with a great celebrity cast, many playing themselves and clearly having a fine time

Still, there is something so last decade about Hollywood satire. As election season brings serious global issues into focus, it does make people prattling on about glamorous movie-biz lifestyles seem like so many Neros fiddling while Rome burns.

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