Cinephiles who know exactly what a gaffer and a best boy do can be stumped by the question: What is a producer? In principle, a movie producer is the one in charge of everything, but Ben (De Niro), who makes a precarious living seeing projects through from conception to distribution, is a man who has lost control of his work and life. “You’re just a producer,” the despotic movie star Bruce Willis, played by Bruce Willis, tells him. “You’re just the fucking mayonnaise in a bad sandwich.”
Sandwiched between a scene in which “the 30 most powerful producers in the business” are photographed for Vanity Fair, most of What Just Happened is a flashback to a frantic two-week period in which Ben’s illusory power fizzles. It begins with a preview screening in which audience reaction to his latest film is so hostile that studio chief Lou Tarnow (Keener) orders Ben to defy the tantrums of its drug-addled director (Wincott) and change the ending. Meanwhile, he is told that funding for another project will be withdrawn unless he can overcome Willis’s violent objections to shaving his beard. Still in love with the second wife (Wright Penn) he is paying $30,000 a month in alimony, Ben is distraught to discover her liaison with a hack screenwriter (Stanley Tucci). With the other sharks and narcissists who populate the motion-picture business, he attends the funeral of a loathsome agent who blew out his brains.
What Just Happened is based on a memoir by producer Art Linson, and it is produced by Linson, Robert De Niro, and others. This is, of course, inside baseball, and if it does not exactly hit a home run, it manages to score in other ways. “It’s hard to produce a great movie,” says studio honcho Tarnow, and if this sorry, silly spectacle is not a great movie, it at least offers several solid innings. Searching for something to say about Ben’s latest debacle, an agent (John Turturro) tells him: “I loved the music.” De Niro performs the exasperating music of Ben’s self-destruction with endearing grace. Yes, the very genre of films about filmmaking is as self-absorbed as the characters it portrays, but anyone sitting in a theater is probably already more interested in seeing how films, rather than refrigerators or insurance policies, are made. And if director Barry Levinson contributes nothing not already evident in The Day of the Locust, The Player, and his own Wag the Dog, he nonetheless provides a knowing take on the rape of art by commerce that begets a movie.
“Nobody knows anything” is screenwriter William Goldman’s famous take on Hollywood, a populist American version of Michel de Montaigne’s admission of fundamental philosophical ignorance: Que sais-je? (What do I know?). Somehow, amid the collision of egos and insecurities, movies get made, and sometimes they just happen to click and connect. “Life is good,” declares Ben at a catastrophic moment when what just happened seems to belie his claim. What Just Happened takes you into the cinematic kitchen and lets you hold the mayonnaise. •