Thursday, May 21, 2009

More 'What Just Happened?' Reviews added

Here are the 'What Just Happened?' reviews! Enjoy!

Please keep in mind that reviews can contain spoilers, lots of spoilers, and that negative reviews can be interesting to read.
If you have more reviews, feel free to email me. :)


•• Reelviews, James Berardinelli: Rating 2,5/4
Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog was as pointed, funny, and intelligent a political satire as there has been in the last 15 years. Now, with Robert De Niro once again on board, Levinson has turned his camera toward his own backyard. What Just Happened?, based on the nonfiction memoirs of producer Art Linson, is a satirical jab to Hollywood's solar plexus that proves the argument that sometimes the most absurd things in life are the true ones. While this movie is fiction, there's so much fact in it that it's more real than many of today's so-called "documentaries." The problem is that the movie plays like one long in-joke. Who really cares about all this stuff? Hollywood types. They'll gobble this up while the rest of us yawn. If someone made a movie about your place of work, you'd probably be engrossed but anyone without a close association would likely be unimpressed. So it is with What Just Happened? This isn't a bad movie; it simply makes the mistake of believing that it has a wider appeal than is actually the case.

Ben (De Niro) is one of Hollywood's A-list producers, but he is suddenly existing in the eye of a perfect storm of bad luck. His latest picture, Fiercely, has been eviscerated at a studio-sponsored test screening. The bad-boy director, Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott), is opposed to making any changes, including re-working the ending in which a dog is shot in the head. However, since Jeremy doesn't have final cut, the studio head, Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener), informs him that either he changes it or she'll pull it from Cannes and re-cut it herself. Meanwhile, another of Ben's projects is in trouble. Bruce Willis has shown up overweight and with a full beard and Ben is given an ultimatum for that project: get Bruce cleanshaven and in shape or the movie will be put on hold. Bruce is solidly opposed to this and threatens to do some very nasty things to Ben. As if that isn't bad enough, Ben is having trouble letting go of his ex-wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn). He still thinks of her as his wife and the "separation therapy" sessions they are attending as a couple isn't making things easier.

Much of what occurs during the course of this film - the ego pacifying, the backstabbing, the victory of commerce over art - is representative of how things work in Hollywood. We are being given the opportunity to peer behind the curtain, and it's not a pretty sight. But What Just Happened? isn't especially insightful or entertaining. The Player worked this same ground to much better effect, providing a satire that was not only wickedly funny but also held the viewer's attention. Linson has been a producer since the '70s, so he knows his stuff but, while some of the vignettes are interesting, the movie often feels more like a series of poorly connected sketches than a fully developed motion picture. What Levinson achieved with Wag the Dog has eluded him here.

The cast is top notch, with notable actors lining up to bite the hand that feeds them. Once upon a time, this would have been considered an atypical role for De Niro, but the actor has diversified enough in recent years that Ben is an effective fit. This isn't De Niro the tough guy; this is De Niro the stressed-out, deluded mover-and-shaker who's intimidated by the thought of a physical confrontation with Bruce Willis. Stanley Tucci and John Turturro have small parts, as does Catherine Keener, who has somehow become typecast as a bitch. (When did that happen?) The aforementioned Willis and Sean Penn gamely lampoon themselves, playing exaggerated versions of their tabloid personalities. In the weirdest bit of casting, Robin Wright Penn, the real-life wife of Sean Penn, plays Ben's wife. (Reminiscent of the Julia Roberts situation in Ocean's 12.)

Since I'm a film critic, it may be that the behind-the-scenes machinations of Hollywood are of more interest to me than they may be to the average viewer. Even taking that into account, I was no more than variably diverted by What Just Happened? Despite being satirical in nature, the movie is rarely funny. In fact, there's something a little sad about seeing how seriously Hollywood types take themselves. If The Player set the bar high for this sub-genre, Levinson's attempt, which too often falls prey to self-indulgence and tedium, comes up significantly short. Those who work in the movie industry or live in Los Angeles may be close enough to this material for it to have resonance, but the rest of the world is more likely to be bored than entertained.

•• Moviefone, Scott Weinberg: If you're a ravenous movie nerd like me, than there's very little in Barry Levinson's "inside baseball" Hollywood movie What Just Happened? If, on the other hand, you don't know a whole lot about studio politics, the angst of test-market screenings, and the tricks that movie-makers (or, more specifically, movie-sellers) will pull just to get a festival screening and a huge opening weekend, then you'll most likely get a whole bunch of chuckles out of the flick. To those who know about this stuff all too well, the comedy should still make for an interesting enough diversion -- thanks mainly to a massive, colorful cast and a few solid jabs that hit Hollywood right in the kisser.

Based on producer Art Linson's book What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line, the film version tells the story of one very successful Hollywood producer, and the ways in which he juggles multiple professional crises, as well as some prickly domestic issues at the same time. Robert De Niro is our movie producer, doing his best "sly" comedic work since (probably) Wag the Dog. John Turturro is the archetypal agent: skittish, shifty, and packing a nasty ulcer. Stanley Tucci is the writer who needs our protagonist for professional reasons, but pursues his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) for other activities. Michael Wincott is the drug-infested director whose ultra-edgy film is being mangled by horrifying studio boss Catherine Keener.

Toss in some supremely amusing "self-mocking" performances from movie stars Bruce Willis and Sean Penn, and you've got the makings of a flick best described as "movie geek heaven." And while What Just Happened? is by all means a colorful and generally pretty funny expose of modern-day Hollywood, it often feels like Levinson and Linson (he also penned the screenplay adaptation) are content to preach to the choir. It's meant to be outrageous and unbelievable how art turns into pure commerce, but there have been plenty of Hollywood satires that demolish the "test screening" mentality, the "beleaguered producer" conceit, and the oh-so-cynical insinuation that Hollywood has no integrity whatsoever. So while much of the material in What Just Happened? is insightful and accurate ... it's just not all that new or shocking anymore.

The massive cast yields a few high-end standouts: As the ever-whining auteur director, Michael Wincott is undeniably hilarious (and has the flick's best line), while the always-great Robin Wright Penn adds a welcome dash of wealthy-yet-domestic reality as DeNiro's confused ex-wife. I'd also mention that John Turturro is very amusing in his role as Bruce Willis' ever-nervous agent, but really: When is John Turturro NOT good? (Seriously.) For their part, Bruce Willis and Sean Penn seem to be having a whole lot of fun as they poke fun at their own movie-star images: Penn makes a great off-hand comment about airplanes and cigarettes, and Willis (well known for being anything BUT a prima donna) roars through the film as a fictional version of Bruce Willis, one that refuses to shave his massive "Grizzly Adams" beard and maintains a seriously nasty temper.

For all its jabs at a clearly cash-obsessed Hollywood, What Just Happened? is not all that venomous of a satire. The finale throws a few clever zingers at Keener's clueless studio chief character, but ultimately What Just Happened? has little to say besides "Boy, Hollywood sure is a two-faced and devious place to work!" As if we didn't already know that by now. As a gimmick-style farce, it works just fine, packed as it is with so many funny performances -- but as a satire it's a fairly toothless affair. Mr. Linson still does a lot of business in Hollywood, don't forget.

But really, how many times will you get to see Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, and Robert De Niro work together? (And in a comedy, no less.) That combo alone is probably worth the price of admission -- or most definitely a DVD rental fee.

•• Slashfilm, Peter Sciretta: Rating 7/10
What Just Happened? begins in a test screening for Fiercely, a new movie starring Sean Penn. The film concludes with the graphic gun-shot death of the hero and his dog, definitely not a crowd pleaser. Poor test scores prompt the studio to request a new cut of the film, but the director doesn’t want to sacrifice his artistic vision. Bruce Willis (played by Bruce Willis) shows up to rehearsals of a new film 30 pounds heavier and sporting a “Grisly Adams beard”, something the studio had not wanted nor expected. These are just some of the many problems in the life of Ben a fading Hollywood producer played by Robert De Niro. He’s one of those typical multi-tasking bluetooth talking blackberry typing producer that you imagine Hollywood is filled with.

What Just Happened is the best Hollywood satire since Robert Altman’s The Player. However, I’m afraid that this film might be too “inside baseball” for some people, but most of the people at Sundance (including myself) liked it, as to be expected. Some of the jokes are all too real. For example, the Bruce Willis storyline closely mirrors the story of Ryan Gosling’s run-in with director Peter Jackson on The Lovely Bones. I’m pretty sure the movie was filmed before all that controversy.

You never know, living in world where Entourage is one of the highest rated shows on HBO, maybe something like this could play to mass audiences. For fans of the show, this film might feel like a very extended episode not featuring Vince and friends. The storyline, as mentioned above, features a Billy Walsh type director fighting the studio for a non-mainstream idea. And the film is also set to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. What Just Happened is also Barry Levinson’s best film in the last 10 years, not that it means much.

•• MTV, Benjamin Wagner: I like the film. It left me sort of upset (Spoiler Alert: The film repeatedly breaks a Hollywood Golden Rule -- don't kill the dog -- twice!), but in a good way. I have no idea what a Barry Levinson-helmed, inside-baseball black comedy about producers, agents and runaway egos featuring Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn, and Bruce Willis is doing at Sundance (though I guess Catherine Keener, John Turturro and Stanley Tucci used to be pretty indie). I’m not really sure whether Levinson’s really taking the piss or just goofing around. And I have no idea if it’ll play to anyone under fifty who lives outside of the 90777 area code. But it’s a fine use of 107 minutes, and a heck of an odd ride.

•• CinemaBlend, Steve West: It’s unlikely there’s any movie at Sundance this year that’s more star-studded than this one. That was said by a wise man in a review earlier at the Sundance Film Festival. Unfortunately, he had little idea that there’d be a movie featuring a Grisly Adams looking Bruce Willis (or “Admiral Willis” as the name on his trailer indicates) throwing around clothes and telling Robert DeNiro to suck his balls. Sean Penn preening for another award nomination, and Willis threatening physical violence during a funeral makes for an interesting cameo smorgasbord.

What Just Happened? follows two weeks in the life of Ben (Robert DeNiro), a struggling Hollywood producer whose had much better times in his life. The trouble begins with Sean Penn’s latest film, an artsy thriller titled Fiercely that is supposed to screen at Cannes in two weeks. Unfortunately the director, Johnny (Mark Ivanir), has chosen to ruin Ben’s life by having the main character’s dog murdered at the finale. You have to wonder if Barry Levinson bet a colleague that you could murder a dog on screen while making the audience laugh simultaneously. If so, he succeeded and someone owes the man a crisp five-dollar bill.

Ben’s trouble doesn’t end there as Levinson spirals his life out of control. Bruce Willis shows up a week before shooting on his new film begins with a bushy beard. The studio wants it shaved because they paid twenty million for a “leading man.” Rather than intimately examine this aspect of Hollywood, Levinson is instead showcasing the absurdity of all facets. No part of the greasy wheel is safe, even the agents. It may or may not be an all-together honest look, but it’s entertaining. Following Ben along on high-powered meetings, shouting matches with A-list stars and funerals where he finds out his daughter is a bit more mature than he had realized works because DeNiro has so much fun with the role.

What Just Happened? is just enjoyable, that’s the best way to put it. Based on the autobiography by Art Linson, the movie is a look into some real aspects of Hollywood. The plot is based on actual events, and so there is a lot of inside commentary. The humor gets repetitive at times, but Levinson switches up the pace with stylish cuts that wash away the bland aftertaste. The immersion into the life of Hollywood never bludgeons you over the head, which is surprising with the parade of cameos and inside jokes. It’s doubtful the average moviegoer will enjoy a movie so focused on a world outside their ken, but to those who obsess over the movie industry What Just Happened? is an amusing way to spend an evening.

•• Variety, Todd McCarthy: Hollywood is skewered, but with a degree of benevolent indulgence, in “What Just Happened?” This is scarcely the first time prominent industry insiders have turned their lenses on their own kind to hold them up to public scrutiny, even ridicule, and in the annals of pictures about the film capital, writer-producer Art Linson and director Barry Levinson’s rates somewhere in the midrange, both in quality and viciousness. A story very much by, about and for middle-aged men, and with the commercial limitations that implies, this intermittently amusing outing is graced by one of Robert De Niro’s more engaging performances of recent vintage.

•• MovieMantz, Scott Mantz: “What Just Happened?” (directed by Barry Levinson) – the biggest problem with the much-buzzed about “What Just Happened?” is that not much happens at all. Robert De Niro plays a frazzled movie producer who spends a week in the Hollywood trenches with an egotistical filmmaker, a hard-nosed studio executive, some downright crazy A-list stars, his two ex-wives and his estranged daughter. “What Just Happened?” is entertaining enough, but it’s a little too “inside Hollywood,” and it’s missing the sharp satirical edge that director Barry Levinson so masterfully crafted in 1997’s “Wag the Dog.”

•• Brian Orndorf: Rating B+
Barry Levinson has returned the fun in making fun of Hollywood, and that’s saying something if one takes into consideration the last decade of motion pictures the once miraculous filmmaker has churned out. “What Just Happened” turns the tables on the industry, mounting a satire of egos, box office returns, and panic attacks without the cluster of winks typically associated with Tinseltown razzing. It’s specialized product, but it plays broadly and cleverly.

A super-producer, Ben (Robert De Niro) is facing professional ruin when his latest film, the dog-killing Sean Penn opus “Fiercely,“ tests poorly, and the studio honcho (Catherine Keener) starts breathing down his neck to recut the film. Compounding Ben’s problems are domestic issues with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn), professional spats with the combative director of “Fiercely” (Michael Wincott), and beard issues with a tremendously sensitive Bruce Willis. Attempting to juggle all his troubles, Ben feels the pinch, racing around Los Angeles trying to placate his enemies with hopes that time, and exceptional box office returns, will save his career.

Written by industry fixture Art Linson (based on his 2002 industry tell-all), “What Just Happened” has been severely fictionalized and restructured to fit Levinson’s vision for the picture as a fast-talking, palm-sweating tribute to the Hollywood jungle. “Happened” is more a film about survival instincts and sacrifices than poking a stick at behind-the-scenes nonsense that could never be legally satisfied onscreen. Linson’s role has been changed to Ben, and his misadventures have been handed over to a declawing screenwriting process, with an aim more toward satire than stark backstage horror.

To see Levinson feel out the material with a surprising degree of success is a delight. I was ready to write off the filmmaker after 2006’s confused “Man of the Year,” but “Happened” puts Levinson back in control, deftly twirling the knobs on this single week in Ben’s hellish life. Levinson tries to play the material cool, keeping Ben floating through his community as his speeds from location to location putting out professional and personal fires, with his Bluetooth earpiece nearly surgically attached to his head. Ben doesn’t get angry, he compromises, and Levinson adores the contrast between the character’s metered exterior and the hysteria of his industry playmates, including a sickly agent (John Turturro), a frustrated screenwriter (Stanley Tucci), and various unmerciful studio heads. It’s captured with outstanding cramped poise by De Niro, who makes every inch of humiliation felt in his performance, yet it’s Levinson who maintains overall pulse. His knowledge on the subject mixed with Linson’s wonderland atmosphere of spoiled brats and spineless fools makes for a riveting, uproarious viewing experience.

“Happened” takes a few pages out of the broadly comedic playbook, arranging a few familial coincidences for Ben that strain credibility and feel superfluous to the story. Levinson and Linson are best when they work the industry over with their jabs (creatively accompanied by the “Fiercely” scoring sessions), encouraging stars like Willis to go to town playing up superstar tantrums, and sending Ben into enlightening test-screening and studio meeting situations that remain comedic, yet retain unexpected educational value in the manner Levinson evokes the pressure of success and, the true origin of concession, the protection of livelihood. Hollywood might seem like a luxurious devil’s playground, but to some of these participants, it’s their only means of income and it must be protected no matter the artistic bastardization required.

“What Just Happened,” with a few Variety headline and agent gags, is surely insidery enough for the intended core audience of the industry elite. Still, the film remains accessible to any passing fan of film production, providing a stout offering of laughs and winces to backdrop a tale of a selfish man forced to eat the failures of his life to achieve a certain peace with his shame. It’s wonderful to see Levinson’s comedic concentration restored, and to find the journey of the producer as he navigates his frenzied life executed with the precise amount of generosity, insight, and venom.

•• Roger Ebert: Rating 2/4
Julia Phillips' famous autobiography was titled, You' ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. Barry Levinson and Art Linson will. At this point, if you're going to make a film about Hollywood greed, hypocrisy and lust, you have to be willing to burn your bridges. There's not a whole lot in "What Just Happened?" that would be out of place in a good "SNL" skit.

Linson is an A-list producer ("Fight Club," "Into the Wild") who wrote this screenplay based on his memoir, subtitled Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line. He knows where the bodies are buried and who buried them, but he doesn't dig anybody up or turn anybody in. If you want to see a movie that Rips the Lid Off Tinseltown, just go ahead and watch Robert Altman's "The Player" (1992). Altman took no hostages. He didn't give a damn. And the book and screenplay he started with were by Michael Tolkin, who was closer to the front line and a lot more bitter. He didn't give a damn, either.

"What Just Happened?" stars Robert De Niro as a powerful Hollywood producer who has two troubled projects on his hands and a messy private life. De Niro warmed up for this film in "The Last Tycoon" (1976), in a role inspired by Irving Thalberg. That screenplay was by Harold Pinter, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Levinson himself directed the brilliant "Wag the Dog" (1997), where De Niro played a political spin doctor assigned to fabricate reasons for a war.

David Mamet wrote that screenplay, which was astonishingly prescient. The movie, which premiered on Dec. 17, 1997, gave us a U.S. president accused of luring a "Firefly Girl" into a room near the Oval Office and presenting her with unique opportunities to salute her commander in chief. The first hints of the Monica Lewinsky scandal became public in January 1998. For the White House methods used to invent reasons for a phony war, Mamet was six years ahead of Iraq.

So what am I saying? Should Mamet have written "What Just Happened?" Why not? For Mamet's "Heist," produced by Linson, he gave Danny DeVito one of the funniest lines ever written: "Everybody loves money! That's why they call it money!" For that matter, Variety's Todd MCarthy thinks some of the characters in this film are inspired by the making of Linson's "The Edge," also written by Mamet. A pattern emerges. But everything I think of is luring me further away from "What Just Happened?"

Anyway, Ben, the De Niro character, has just has a disastrous preview of his new Sean Penn film, "Fiercely." The audience recoils at the end, when a dog is shot. The problem with the footage of "Fiercely" we see is that it doesn't remotely look like a real movie. Meantime, Ben is trying to get his next project off the ground. It will star Bruce Willis as an action hero, but inconveniently Willis has put on a lot of weight and grown a beard worthy of the Smith Brothers.

Ben is still in love with Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), his ex-wife No. 2, but they just haven't been able to make it work and are now immersed in something I think it is called Break-Up Therapy. Their daughter, Zoe (Kristen Stewart), is having anguish of her own, which goes with the territory for a rich kid from a shattered home in 90210. And Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener), Ben's studio chief, is scared to death that "Fiercely" will tank. And the film's mad-dog British director (Michael Wincott) defends the dog's death as artistically indispensable. And the writer of the Bruce Willis thriller (Stanley Tucci) is having an affair with Ben's ex-wife No. 2.

This isn't a Hollywood satire, it's a sitcom. The flywheels of the plot machine keep it churning around, but it chugs off onto the back lot and doesn't hit anybody in management. Only Penn and Willis are really funny, poking fun not at themselves but at stars they no doubt hate to work with. Wincott is great as the Brit director who wants to end with the dead dog; one wonders if Linson was inspired by Lee Tamahori, the fiery New Zealand-born director of "The Edge," who stepped on the astonishing implications of Mamet's brilliant last scene by fading to black and immediately popping up a big credit for Bart the Bear.

•• Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman: Rating B
Barry Levinson's What Just Happened is an inside-Hollywood satire with a difference: The hero is, of all things, a producer — and the movie has the temerity to be on his side. Robert De Niro stars as the scrambling big shot who has all the power yet, somehow, none of the control. His lavish new thriller, which is called Fiercely and stars Sean Penn, scored abysmally at a test screening, thanks to a climax in which a dog gets blown away. Can the British twit (Michael Wincott) who directed this twaddle be coerced, or even drugged, into recutting it? In a bigger (unrelated) headache, will Bruce Willis, who has grown a Paul Bunyan beard he refuses to shave (he wants to be loved for his talent), ditch those whiskers by week's end, when his new picture begins shooting?

Adapted by the producer Art Linson from his 2002 memoir, What Just Happened offers a thinly fictionalized version of a Hollywood that is running on corporate autopilot. Every artist here is just a baby throwing a tantrum; the crushing of ''creativity'' by commerce is something the movie takes blithely for granted. In this dog-eat-art universe, even a producer is reduced to the status of glorified errand boy. What Just Happened rambles a bit, but it has dryly obscene, laugh-out-loud lines, and its portrait of Hollywood as a giant anxiety attack is fused by De Niro, who musters a desperate, nagging warmth beneath his grumbly facade.

•• Combustible Celluloid, Jeffrey M. Anderson: Rating 3/4
For the second time in his career, Robert De Niro plays a movie producer losing his way in soulless Hollywood. The first time was in Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon (1974), an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's final, unfinished novel. The new one, What Just Happened?, is a lightweight comedy directed by Barry Levinson. Though it would seem to fly in the face of everything sacred, I like the new one better. Kazan's rigid directing tried to make something bigger out of the first film, while Levinson's loose direction allows the new movie merely to comfortably exist.

Producer Ben (De Niro) must maneuver his way through three major problems (and several smaller ones) over the course of a few sunny, Los Angeles days. A finished Sean Penn movie has tested badly and he must convince the headstrong, "gritty" Aussie director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) to recut. Then, a big-name actor (Bruce Willis) has appeared on set grossly overweight and wearing a "Grizzly Adams" beard. Since the actor has a big ego and an even bigger temper, Ben tries to get the actor's lily-livered agent (John Turturro) to do the convincing. (Willis seems to enjoy playing parodies of himself; this one goes hand-in-hand with his hilarious turn in last year's Nancy Drew as well as in The Player.) Ben also discovers to his chagrin that his soon-to-be ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) is sleeping with a screenwriter (Stanley Tucci), even though he still loves her and hopes to get back together. Kristen Stewart co-stars as Ben's daughter who has been participating in some surprising activities as well, and Catherine Keener gives yet another rock-solid comic performance as a ballsy studio head.

De Niro navigates all this with a calm demeanor, though his thoughts almost always seem to be somewhere else; this gentle distraction makes him wonderfully sympathetic. And Levinson (who previously worked with De Niro on Sleepers and Wag the Dog) refuses to point fingers or satirize the industry; he merely floats through the days and allows things to be as they are. It's as laid-back as any Hollywood movie about itself has ever been. It's based on a book by real-life producer Art Linson (who also co-produced here), and apparently, these events are only slightly changed from those that took place around the production of The Edge (1997).

•• Film Blather, Eugene Novikov: Rating B-
Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened is inside baseball. How inside baseball? It opens at a test screening. If you’re in the movie business or you follow it, you know all about test screenings; you’ve probably been to some. You know about the demographically calibrated audiences, the too-happy publicists, the all-important comment cards, and the hand-wringing and nail-biting that often ensues. Does the average moviegoer know? Does even the average intelligent and informed moviegoer?

You see what I mean. This is a film that stars Robert De Niro, Stanley Tucci, Robin Wright Penn, John Turturro and Bruce Willis (as himself), and yet the audience for it is infinitesimally small. I hesitate to recommend it to viewers who aren’t hardcore current film buffs. If you do fit that description, you might like this problematic, funny, somewhat insightful Hollywood satire.

The test screening is for a new movie from a veteran producer, known to us only as Ben and played by De Niro. Supposedly it’s a quality movie, made by a maverick director (think Tony Kaye on more drugs) and starring Sean Penn, who only signed up because it was art, man. It ends with an adorable dog being shot in the head. (“My wife is still crying, you bastard” reads one of the comment cards.)

The studio head (Catherine Keener, delightful) is having none of this, and orders Ben and his director to recut the film or she will do it herself. The director goes off the deep end. Meanwhile, Ben is on the verge of a divorce — his wife (Robin Wright Penn) may or may not be sleeping with a fellow producer (Stanley Tucci) — and his new movie has ground to a halt because Bruce Willis is overweight and won’t shave his beard.

What Just Happened‘s best insight has to do with the difficulty of making a good film in the studio system. No one is interested, and filmmakers are left hoping that their tough, gritty tendencies will accidentally appeal to teenage boys who will find the whole thing funny. Levinson undercuts this somewhat by making the Director a loon, and by making the movie itself an obvious art film parody — his point would have been stronger, and the satire more bracing, were the movie-within-the-movie actually worth fighting for.

That actually gets at the main problem with What Just Happened, which is that it goes madcap when it should have stayed deadpan. Bruce Willis throwing furniture is very funny, I admit, but I’m not sure where the Director’s hopped-up flipping out gets us. The film’s funniest moments are often the softest — watch for Ben’s reaction when a colleague pitches a movie about a florist.

De Niro gives an expert, layered performance, and you might see the movie just for Bruce Willis’s hilariously self-effacing turn as a crazed version of himself. This might be Barry Levinson’s strongest directorial effort since Wag the Dog (though Bandits would give it a run for its money). It’s esoteric, and its audience is small, but if you’re part of it, you know who you are.

By the way, the film is adapted from veteran producer Art Linson’s memoirs. The beard incident really happened — the actor was Alec Baldwin, and the film was The Edge.

•• SFGate, Mick LaSalle: It looks so glamorous from the outside. But from the inside, the life of a midlevel Hollywood producer, as portrayed in Barry Levinson's new comedy, "What Just Happened?," looks like nonstop stress and compromise. Though nominally the boss, a producer has little power in comparison to film stars. He needs to suck up to them, and to the money people above him, because everybody knows the truth: Marketable actors are rare, but producers are interchangeable.

That's the kind of insight that can come only from people who know the business. Levinson has showbiz credits going back 40 years, and he directed one of the best Hollywood satires of the '90s, "Wag the Dog." And the screenplay for "What Just Happened?" was written by Art Linson (based on the eponymous book), who has produced dozens of films since the 1970s. They know this world, and that knowledge is evident here. Their humor is specific and often very funny and has the ring of bitter truth.

The story is narrated from the point of view of Ben (Robert De Niro, in his beleaguered mode), a veteran whose career is on the ropes because of an especially bad preview. How bad? Sidesplittingly bad. The preview scene is one of the funniest scenes of the past few months: An eccentric English director has turned in a Sean Penn action film, but with an ending guaranteed to alienate everyone on the planet.

What's good about the preview scene is what's good about "What Just Happened?" There's an outrageousness and adventurousness about the comedy, a sense of freedom, but at the same time the scene is grounded in realistic observation. Nobody, for example, tells Ben that his movie is bad. Friends either lie, avoid eye contact or say something like, "I loved the music." And there will always be the lone oddball who genuinely believes that the preview went well.

Levinson and Linson have more than wit going for them. To see Ben on an office sofa, trying to mediate between his delusional director (Michael Wincott) and the icy studio head (Catherine Keener), feels like being a fly on the wall. At times, "What Just Happened?" feels like getting an education into how things are really done.

Readers of F. Scott Fitzgerald's grimly amusing Pat Hobby stories will recognize in Ben a similar character. He's a Hollywood veteran with no talent or artistic ambition, just the desire to survive, pay his alimony and be perceived as a big shot. Over the course of the film, the static nature of the protagonist presents Levinson with a challenge: How do you activate a narrative whose lead character wants nothing specific, just prestige and comfort? Levinson succeeds through good direction, by keeping the comedy lively and by investing, to the extent that it's sensible, in the emotional side of the story - in Ben's lingering attraction and affection for his second ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn). Even so, the movie inevitably does lose some energy as it wears on. Story is not its strong suit.

But if, ultimately, "What Just Happened?" emerges as slightly less than the sum of its parts, those parts are very good indeed. Bruce Willis plays himself as a complete monster, a superstar actor hired to be a romantic lead who shows up on the set overweight and with an elaborate beard. He refuses to shave, even if it means shutting down the picture.

Throughout, the movie reminds us that the world of Hollywood illusion exists both on the set and off, that power has everything to do with the illusion of power, with ever-fluid currents of popular perception. As presented in "What Just Happened?" the world of Hollywood looks like a very expensive, lethal version of high school, not fun to live in, but lots of fun from a safe distance.

•• Groucho Reviews: Rating 3/4
At first glance, one might be surprised to see a film directed by Barry Levinson and starring Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, Robin Wright Penn, Catherine Keener, and John Turturro released not by a major studio but by the relatively small indie distributor Magnolia Pictures. A closer look quickly reveals why: What Just Happened is a scathing insider look at Hollywood, based on the memoir of producer Art Linson. Following in the footsteps of the many great Tinseltown tragicomedies, director Barry Levinson punctures the bubble reputations fostered by glossy E! culture.

De Niro gives one of his most winning performances of recent years as Ben, a put-upon producer trying to keep too many balls in the air. Linson's screenplay gives us a week in the life of his alter ego, a week tellingly overshadowed by the suicide of an agent ("He had ten percent of the brass ring, didn't he?", Ben muses). Linson has no need to exaggerate—the Hollywood anecdotes you’ll find here are essentially true, including the story of how an overweight star’s unwillingness to shave his beard almost destroys a major motion picture scheduled to roll at week's end (Bruce Willis plays “Bruce Willis” in this scenario, though in real life, Alec Baldwin was the bearded star). Turturro plays Willis' fearful agent Dick Bell, who suffers from funny-tragic stomach distress. "I'm not scared of him," Dick insists. "I'm scared of all of them."

Another of Ben's film's—a dark thriller starring Sean Penn and called "Fiercely"—receives a disasterous preview (asked his opinion, Bell demurs, "This could be the year for grief"). The ensuing discussion between the film's unjustifiably self-impressed director (Michael Wincott) and the studio chief (Catherine Keener) focuses not on the film being good or bad (though the latter seems likely, based on the evidence), but rather the film-ending assasination of a dog (a sin the preview audience humorously considers far more egregious than the slaying of Penn). Racing against a Cannes deadline, Ben goes to work convincing the distraught director to recut the ending, which represents a projected $10 million difference in the film's predestined losses. Though it seems unlikely, maybe pharmaceuticals will help.

Doing a job with no boundaries predictably plays havoc with Ben's personal life, telling scored to the soundtrack of his movie (including Ennio Morricone's existentially worrying cut "Man with a Harmonica"). His soon-to-be-ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) has roped him into separation therapy in an attempt surgically to remove a man versed in the art of the deal. There's alimony paid to a first wife (Marin Hinkle), and child support to her daughter with Ben, a blossoming teen named Zoe (Kristen Stewart). Positioned as somewhat of a climax in the story is the agent's funeral, which has nothing to do with the dead man and everything to do with the egos of the power players on site (and a surprising revelation by Zoe). There, a screenwriter friend (Stanley Tucci) asks Ben point blank, "I'm not happy. Is this a feeling that you're unfamiliar with?"

Therefore, although What Just Happened is mostly a drily funny, industry-savvy movie for those fascinated by the movie business, it’s also a melancholy comedy of post-middle-age and the increasingly elusive illusion of power. Will it play in Peoria? Who knows...this could be the year for comic grief.

•• Screen Savor Movie Reviews, Kimberly Gadette: If you ever wondered exactly what a f ilm producer does, look no further than What Just Happened . It's a training film unlike any other.

Based on producer Art Linson's autobi ographical book, "What Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales From The Front Line," the film is one part outrageous satire, one part field guide reporting on unfettered Hollywood wild life tearing through the industry at will, and one part examinatio n of a mature man's juggling of his precipitous career, public image, melancholic ex-wives, ridiculously young children and towering alimony payments.

The movie recounts a stormy two-week timeframe in which ou r hero, feature film producer Ben (Robert De Niro), must placate the studio executive (Catherine Keener) and the temp eramentally rabid Jewish/Br itish director (Michael Wincott), all the while finagling a satisfactory final cut for his Cannes-bound, Sean Penn-starring film. There's also the trouble with Bruce Willis, who might just shut down Ben's next movie (one that he desperately needs in order to keep himself financially afloat). Willis' new Grizzly Adams beard and we ight gain is not sittin g well with the studio, and Willis' agent (John Turturro) is too frightened by his own jo b insecurity to approach the volatile Willis. Ben's ex-wife looks to be dating again, his teenage daug hter is crying over some secret, and the art director of next month's "Vanity Fair" cover, shooting the top 30 prod ucers in the industry, had better not make him stand in the back. Thank goodness Ben occasionally works out to his yoga DVD.

With one incisive scene leisurely following the next, What Just Happened puts its own stamp on the evergreen practice of Hollywood's tendency to self-roast. Like a w aning starlet, fresh from he r latest Botox treatment, the industry can't stop itself from continually gazing in the mirror. (Classics include Singin' in the Rain , A Star is Born , Sunset Boulevard , The Bad and the Beautiful , The Player .) But this film takes a few st eps back from the flames of current Hollywood immolator, HBO's Entourage. And while pr oducer-turned-screenwriter Linson has a cuttingly funny voice, he and director Barry Levinson still manage to allow De Niro's Ben a certain sweetness.

A fter the halting disaster of his lead appearance in this year's Righteous Kill , it's a pleasure to see De Niro engaged in the business of acting once again. Portraying a man who must continually "produc e" success, be it with his films, family or finances, De Niro creates a character w ho is all things to all people, while keeping the bigger picture clearly in focus. But he intermitte ntly lets his guard down, and we see a human being deeply affecte d by his ex-wife moving on, his fear of aging, his frustration in communicating with his children. It may be a dirty business, but De Niro's Ben makes it a bit more decent by his involvement— which keeps this film from being just another industry rout.

Not that the skewer isn't sharp. Turturro's turn as a soft-bellied agent with a slavis h commitment to his exterior shell, a car apace that ultimately can't protect his turtle-esque existence, gives us some of the biggest laughs of the f ilm. Michael Wincott's mad, se lf-styled bad-boy director sp orting black fingernail polish and the Hebrew letter "Chai" tattooed on his neck, Hoovering anything that isn't nailed down, is great fun. The aw kward dance between d ivorcees Ben and Robin Penn Warren's Kelly is both comic and sensitive.

The trappings are rendered perfectly: The producer with two mansi ons, residing in SoCal's take on the divorced man's limbo—a fu rnished apartment with '70s fake wood paneling, conveniently studio-adjacent. Ben's fear that the innocuous repairman in his office might either be spying or prepping the space for his replacement. The stuttering, overwhelmed assi stants, the tantrums while grinding M&M's into diabetic fairy dust, the blue tooth as a lifeline, the traffic.

If for some reason you're missing hip, happenin' L.A. , this virtual movie trip will bring it all back...and the price of a ticket over plane fare can't be beat.

•• Reelfilm, David Nusair: Rating 2/4
Based on Art Linson's breezy, thoroughly entertaining memoir, What Just Happened initially comes off as an eye-opening glimpse into the behind-the-scenes world of a Hollywood producer (Robert De Niro's Ben). Ben's efforts at shepherding a troubled endeavor through its post-production phase - as well as his ongoing ordeal with a new picture starring Bruce Willis (and his shaggy beard) - is certainly as interesting and compelling as one might've hoped, with De Niro's ingratiating performance matched by an impressive list of co-stars that includes Catherine Keener, John Turturro, and Michael Wincott. The slow-but-steady introduction of elements that simply aren't all that engaging - eg Ben's relationship with his teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart's Zoe) - does ensure that the film suffers from an awfully tedious and random midsection, with Barry Levinson's penchant for punching up scenes with a free-wheeling, French-New-Wave directorial sensibility serving only to highlight the increasingly (and egregiously) random atmosphere. It's subsequently not surprising to note that What Just Happens fizzles out to an astonishing degree as it limps towards its entirely underwhelming finale, which essentially comes off as a slightly plausible (yet hopelessly derivative) riff on the flat-out absurd conclusion of 2001's America's Sweethearts. The end result is an effort whose negatives outweigh its positives by an almost overpowering margin, and one ultimately can't help but lament the transformation of a stellar book into an utterly disappointing misfire.

•• StarTribune, Colin Covert: Robert De Niro gives his finest performance in ages as an exasperated producer.

In "What Just Happened," we get a loving tribute to the movie business filled with disdain for the ethics of the people who work in the business. Robert De Niro delivers a dry, hilarious turn as Ben, a once-formidable film producer whose career is slipping. He's being included in a Vanity Fair photo spread on Hollywood, posing with other movie folk against a backdrop that reads POWER. But he's positioned against the P, not by the higher-status W. His expression at falling so low that he can be pushed around by photo stylists is pure black comedy. In a key passage, a character declares, "The movie business is a cruel and shallow money trench, where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."

It's not a pretty picture, but the sardonic material has sparked De Niro to life. This is the finest performance he has delivered in years. Ben is a worrywart nonentity whose livelihood is his ability to buff movie stars' egos, baby-sit dope-fiend directors and balance his disintegrating private life against ever-mounting professional demands.

We meet this vain, twitchy milquetoast at a disastrous test screening of "Fiercely," an artsy thriller starring Sean Penn. With a double-downer of an ending -- bad guys shoot Penn and his dog -- "Fiercely" has the test audience in a rage. Over the next week, Ben must cajole the director into recutting this fiasco, plus coddle bearded, overweight Bruce Willis into getting camera-ready for Ben's next feature, talk his almost-ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) out of divorcing him and convince a shark-like studio head (Catherine Keener) that he still has what it takes.

The film, coming on the heels of the De Niro-Pacino honker "Righteous Kill," is a valuable reminder of the virtuosity America's finest actor can summon when he makes the effort. Ben never says what he feels, yet De Niro's guarded expressions, pauses and evasions are eloquent. The character isn't admirable, but because he's wily and an underdog, we identify with him.

Before the age of "Access Hollywood" and "Entourage," only 48 people in America would have savored the in-jokes that propel this film. Today, everyone's an insider and the predicament of an overextended executive tightrope-walking from one dilemma to the next is uncomfortably familiar to millions. Barry Levinson ("Diner," "Wag the Dog") trusts us to see the jokes in Ben's precarious existence. Some of the jokes hit us on the head, as when Ben tells the disagreeable Willis that he should donate his bloated salary to the Red Cross. And there's some slapstick involving a treacherous talent agent (John Turturro) and a shovel that is regrettable. But dozens of sly gags are tossed off in the deft editing: Ben gets career-killing news in his Bluethooth as his car zips past a momentarily glimpsed graveyard.

Ben's troubles accumulate as the industry mirrors his personal chaos. He suspects that his not-quite-ex is sleeping with screenwriter Scott Soloman (Stanley Tucci), which is several steps below dating the pool guy. He's stiffed by a mogul who promised him a seat on a private jet. As Ben's humiliations mount, we look for the moment when De Niro will have his big De Niro scene, exploding in a blast of violent, untidy emotion. When that flash comes and vanishes, it's one of the film's best moments.

The finest, however, comes when screenwriter Soloman, who knows Ben knows about him and Ben's wife, pitches a script about a florist. Ben diplomatically declines. Brad Pitt is interested, Soloman replies. After a beat, Ben declares he's intrigued by the possibilities. There you have everything you need to know about the movie business in 25 words or less.

•• PopMatters, Cynthia Fuchs: Rating 4/10
Posing for the cover of Vanity Fair‘s Power issue, veteran producer Ben (Robert De Niro) looks gloomy and distressed. Being named one of the 30 most powerful figures in the industry sounds good, he knows, but he also knows he’s in trouble. “Power,” Ben says as he’s being shuffled to the outer edge of the group portrait, “is everything in Hollywood: you either have it, want it, or are afraid of losing it.” Right about now, he’s straddling all three positions at the same time.

Ben’s efforts to keep control take up the bulk of What Just Happened, Barry Levinson’s adaptation of producer Art Linson’s book, subtitled Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line. Less an expose than a recap of what even casual observers of the industry know or intuit, Ben’s story relies on clichés even as he deplores them. Never without his cellphone, he makes his way around L.A. like he’s on a series of secret secret but simultaneously showy missions, calculating each meeting—time and place—in order to reap maximum benefit. He’s always cutting deals, massaging egos, finding compromises.

Even the few minutes he spends with his three children are set up as appointments, ever in flux: arriving at the home of his second ex, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), to take his son to school, he hears, “She says it’s okay for you to go in the house instead of using the cell phone.” Mm-hmm. And inside, Kelly speaks from the balcony overlooking the spacious foyer, informing him of her decision to re-cover the sofa-chair Ben now realizes that he cherishes the way it was. The metaphor is plain to everyone but Ben. His sudden passionate involvement in her redecorating inspires Kelly’s self-defense: “Let’s play the roles,” she sighs. “This session is called how to learn to live apart.”

Ben’s own desires change moment to moment, as does his ability to keep boundaries. Unable to sort out his resentment, guilt, and anger as he also strains to maintain his sense of “power,” he stops by his first ex-wife’s home to pick up 17-year-old daughter Zoe (Kristen Stewart), he notices Arriving to take her to school, he notices her eyes are red. “If it’s boy stuff,” he says earnestly, “You can ask me.” (Her mother, cutting roses in the driveway with a vengeance, growls, “Secrets seem to be the family hobby, must be in the DNA.”) Zoe doesn’t confide in her father, of course, though he presses and fidgets as she gets into his car, imagining he’s a different sort of father than she sees.

Ben has a similarly in accurate understanding of his work—in particular, how his associates see him. For his latest movie, a thriller starring Sean Penn and directed by edgy and expensive Brit artiste Jeremy (Michael Wincott), is in trouble, and so he’s called on to assuage hurt feelings and anxieties on all sides. While Jeremy has a vision (which includes killing a dog at film’s end, loudly and with much blood), studio exec Lou (Catherine Keener) is bothered by newly collected, furious audience reaction cards. With the film supposed to premiere at Cannes in a week and the opposing sides dug in, Ben takes what seems to be a direct approach: he puts Lou and Jeremy in a room together, watches sparks (and M&Ms) fly, then promises both they’ll get what they need. He puts the director in an editing bay, provides him with drugs (though Jeremy is, at least briefly, proudly sober), and sets off to tend to his next crisis, namely, Bruce Willis’ (playing himself) rumored new look.

Ben’s first line of intervention is through Willis’ miserably neurotic agent, Dick (John Turturro). Terrified to speak to Willis (and beset by an especially awful stomach ailment), Dick does his best to avoid direct encounters (“I’m scared of all of them!” he says of his clients). Even as Ben instructs Dick in the obligations of his profession, their community gathers to mourn (or pretend to mourn) the passing of another agent who has just killed himself. If his death is tragic, it is also predictable, granting his colleagues and faux friends the opportunity to perform their grief and moral upbraiding (Willis is a particularly gracious speaker at the ceremony), as well as make deals while walking from cars to gravesite.

What Just Happened is, in essence, about what doesn’t happen in Hollywood, about the incessant phone calls and willful lack of communication, the professions of love and loyalty that everyone knows are false yet still craves. It’s about cheating, depression, and survival. It’s about the roles that men and women play, hoping to fit in but also desperate to stand out, jealous and hapless and childish. Unsurprisingly cynical, the movie doesn’t offer insight so much as reconfirmation.

•• ViewLondon, Matthew Turner: Rating 3/5
Likeable Hollywood comedy with strong comic performances from a superb cast, though it's a shame it's not a little more daring.

What's it all about? - Based on the memoir by producer Art Linson, What Just Happened takes place over two weeks in the life of middle-aged Hollywood producer Ben (Robert De Niro), who's attempting to juggle a series of crises, both personal and professional. His work problems include dealing with a full-bearded Bruce Willis, who refuses to shave for his latest role, and getting caught up in a fight between hard-as-nails studio chief Lou (Catherine Keener) and rebellious, drug-addicted director Jeremy (Michael Wincott), whose latest, Sean Penn-starring film, Fiercely, is about to debut at Cannes and looks set to become an audience-offending flop.

Meanwhile, Ben is trying to get back together with his ex-wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn) and is horrified to discover that she's secretly dating his screenwriter friend Scott (Stanley Tucci). And on top of that, he has to deal with the problems of his rapidly maturing teenage daughter, Zoe (Kristen Stewart).

The Good - De Niro is excellent, delivering a surprisingly warm and likeable performance that's removed from the characters he usually plays (Stardust's Dread Pirate Roberts aside). There's also strong comic support from a hilarious Willis (the beard incident is apparently based on Alec Baldwin's behaviour on The Edge) and a surprisingly game Penn, while Wincott steals every scene he's in as the neurotic, drug-addled Jeremy.

Director Barry Levinson keeps things moving at a decent pace and there are several amusing scenes, even if the script never quite sticks the knife in the way you want it to.

The Bad - The main problem is that Ben is a little too likeable, which is unsurprising, since Linson himself produced the film. At the same time, you never feel like there's anything at stake for Ben and that he'd be okay, even if both his movies flopped.

Worth seeing? - What Just Happened is a watchable, well-acted and frequently amusing comedy, but it lacks the satirical bite of, say, The Player.

•• Shadows on the wall, Rich Cline: Taken from his own memoirs, Linson's screenplay has a zing of truth as it cuts through the layers of Hollywood mayhem to tell a thoroughly hilarious and surprisingly involving story of a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Ben (DeNiro) is a top Hollywood producer trying to woo his ex-wife (Wright Penn) back, while discovering that his teen daughter (Stewart) by an earlier marriage has all kinds of secrets. And work keeps getting in the way, as a primadonna director (Wincott) refuses to change the grim finale of his new Sean Penn movie to please the studio boss (Keener). And on another film, a tantrum-throwing Bruce Willis' refuses to shave his deeply unsexy beard. Can Ben juggle all of this and still make it to Cannes for the big premiere?

A razor sharp script makes this one of the most entertaining and enlightening movies ever made about the movie business. From the overdramatic directors ("My guts are in that film!") to the heartless executives ("You cut it or I will"), from unstable agents to star egos gone wild, the film gleefully slices through the strata of power. And there's the constant, vivid sense that in this world, all power is temporary.

Yes, this is a film made by insiders for insiders. But it comes to life by focussing on Ben's personal odyssey, as he struggles to cope with recognisably real crises in his professional and personal lives. And of course, every problem requires some sort of compromise. DeNiro plays the character perfectly, catching the middle-aged angst and a gnawing sense that his values and skills aren't required anymore. And he bounces wonderfully off the people around him.

Every character is sharp and complicated, with especially witty turns by Willis and Penn as amusingly exaggerated versions of themselves, plus strong support from Keener and Wright Penn, as well as Tucci (as Ben's writer friend, who may be having a fling with his ex) and Turturro (as an agent who's afraid to talk to his clients). And Levinson keeps the tone just right, making subtle jabs along the way, while touching on strong issues such as how one person's power play can jeopardise hundreds of people's livelihoods.

•• Tony Macklin: Director Barry Levinson's What Just Happened? is also about spoiled brats. But it's amusing.

The biggest spoiled brat is the most entertaining. Bruce Willis gives an outrageous, ferocious performance as himself. He refuses to cut off a full, scruffy beard for his next movie. He screams and rants, but his conflict with the studio (that refuses to make the movie if he doesn't shear it) ends with a clever resolution.

What Just Happened? is the story of Ben (Robert De Niro), a harried Hollywood producer who is trying to keep two movie projects afloat, while his personal life is foundering.

Besides the Willis project, Ben also is struggling to rescue another movie that stars Sean Penn, that was rejected at a preview screening because of its shocking ending.

De Niro gives his best performance in years as the put-upon producer, based on producer Art Linson's book and life. Catherine Keener is effective as a willful studio head, and John Turturro is fine as an agent whose stomach is failing him in more than one way.

What Just Happened? is shades of the late Robert Altman's The Player. It probably is too much of an inside joke to please many audiences. But if Rachel Getting Married is a cuckoo bird, What Just Happened? is a lark.

•• The Washington Times, Sony Bunch: There comes a moment in “What Just Happened?” when you realize that what you’re seeing is not really a comedy but a tragedy, a tale of a man beaten down by life more than he (probably) deserves. But until you get there, the movie’s a fun ride.

Don’t get me wrong; “What Just Happened?” can be blisteringly funny at times. Ben’s interactions with Mr. Willis and his recalcitrant director are hilarious, as are his tussles with Mr. Willis’ spineless agent, Catherine Keener).

But the movie bogs down when the camera turns to Ben’s family and personal life. There’s an odd subplot about an agent who committed suicide; we’re led to believe that Ben’s daughter, Zoe (Kristen Stewart), had some sort of relationship with the agent, but the story never goes anywhere. Ben’s relationships (or lack thereof) with his ex-wives also get no more than a cursory examination, and what little time is spent with them seriously detracts from the film’s narrative drive.

“What Just Happened?” is worth seeing, especially for people interested in the inner workings of the Hollywood machine. But don’t go in expecting a laugh a minute, as the movie’s advertisements have promised; it’s too true-to-life for that.

•• Movie Habit, Marty Mapes: Rating 2,5/4
In cinema there are two portraits of Hollywood. There’s the sunny, ambitious backstage musical that idolizes The Movies as the pinnacle of a creative career. (I think the most recent incarnation may have been The Muppet Movie, more than 30 years ago.)

Then there’s the dark side, where the heartless machine chews up insecure actors and everyone is a backstabbing phony.

I grew up believing in the sunny side, so when I lost my innocence, I came to really hate that dark side. Sunset brilliant, but it’s painful to watch. The Player put me in a funk for days. I laughed at the cynicism in Tropic Thunder, which portrays actors so shallow that some audiences were genuinely offended.

And What Just Happened, released the same year as Tropic Thunder, is absolutely disgusting (yet very well made).

I recognize that What Just Happened is very good. It’s well polished, it’s coherent, it’s rich with internal consistency. It’s not surprising that a story coming from professional filmmakers would be professionally made. I have to give it a mild recommendation, in spite of my own distaste for the subject matter.

Seeing this kind of movie makes me want to go find some obscure favorite that really was made by a lone auteur working on the fringes of the system: someone like Michelangelo Antonioni, who, like the prima donna director in What Just Happened, did something so daring and unconventional that he got both booed and applauded at Cannes.

Leave it to the soulless machine to reduce Antonioni’s new vision for cinema to a question of whether or not the dog dies in the end.

•• News Blaze, Kam Williams: Rating 3/4
Directed by Oscar-winner Barry Levinson (for Rain Man), What Just Happened was adapted by Art Linson from his novel of the same name. More understated than sidesplitting, this biting satire of showbiz offers an amusing enough inside peek at what life might be like in Tinseltown to remain recommended, its mostly inside industry jokes notwithstanding.

•• FilmInk, Mark Demetrius: The stellar cast is appropriate - rather than top-heavy - in this case, because What Just Happened? is an exercise in Hollywood self-parody. As such, it's surprisingly enjoyable, and replete with very (cynically) funny lines. It's also mercifully free of the kind of phony pretensions to subversion and irreverence that weighed down, say, Robert Altman's The Player.

What Just Happened? isn't remotely comparable to director Barry Levinson's early triumphs (Diner, Rain Man, Bugsy), but it's a lot of fun. The mushier moments complement the high farce well, rather than undermining it, and it's refreshing to see De Niro in a role that doesn't waste his gifts.

•• The Age, Philippa Hawker: THERE is plenty of memorable cinema about cinema, from Singin' in the Rain to Sullivan's Travels, Contempt to The Player, Day for Night to The Bad and the Beautiful. But whatever their provenance or angle — or however bad they are — films about films have many of the same things underpinning them. They usually portray a backbiting world of cynical producers, vain stars and compromised artists. Idealism can never flourish — sometimes it's a dubious quality to begin with — and there is always a Faustian bargain in the offing.

Barry Levinson's What Just Happened has all these elements, but it is an undistinguished addition to the list. It's an insider view from the upper echelons of Hollywood, based on a memoir by producer Art Linson. The latter's credits include Into the Wild, Fight Club and Fast Times at Ridgemont High; in adapting his own book, he's turned it into a fictional story, in which producer Ben (Robert De Niro) juggles foundering film projects while attempting to reconnect with his second wife (Robin Wright Penn), from whom he is separated.

The movie opens with a disastrous test screening of one of these projects, an arty thriller called Fiercely, which stars Sean Penn and a dog. Ben's other movie is about to start shooting, but there's a crisis that threatens to derail it: the star, Bruce Willis, is refusing to shave his beard.

Ben — a quizzical, low-key, doggedly amiable De Niro performance — shuttles between problems, a hands-free earpiece seemingly grafted to his head. He's trying to salvage both projects, wrangle a neurotic agent, an ice-cool studio executive and maverick British director, take part in a Vanity Fair shoot, attend separation counselling and wondering who could have left an argyle sock under his wife's bed.

But What Just Happened, despite an air of crisis, feels sluggish and plodding. There are mildly entertaining gags about celebrity excess, executive overkill and male anxiety. Levinson begins with, then abandons, a voice-over, tricks out the film with slick images filmed in traffic, bungles what is meant to be a satirical funeral scene, takes us to an improbable Cannes screening, and tries to disguise that he has surprisingly little to say.