‘Trouble in Hollywood (What Just Happened?)’

Allegiance to the Hollywood code


Hollywood is such a duplicitous, back-stabbing, narcissistic pit of weasels and vipers that making a satire about it should be no more difficult than, say, getting a gram of cocaine delivered to a 90210 address at four in the morning. And yet the conundrum is this: If you really tell it like it is, you can kiss your career goodbye. Hollywood, no less so than the Mafia, relies on a code of silence. Sure, you may have to eat dirt now, but suck it up, and in a few years, you’ll be the one serving it to others.

Every now and then, someone — usually some poor sap with no bridges left to burn — comes along and speaks the truth, in books such as Julia Philips’ “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again” and David Mamet’s “Bambi vs. Goliath,” or films like Robert Altman’s “The Player” and David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” (a personal fave). Yet these are remarkably rare occasions.

Trouble in Hollywood (What Just Happened?)
Director Barry Levinson
Run Time 104 minutes
Language English

Director Barry Levinson, with a stable 28-year career that stretches from “Diner” to “Wag the Dog” and beyond, didn’t seem like a prime candidate to engage in anything so bold. And sure enough, his Hollywood insider comedy “What Just Happened?” (Japan title: “Trouble in Hollywood”) attempts to cut steak with a butter knife.

Based on the memoirs of real-life producer Art Linson, whose credits include “Fight Club,” “Heat” and “Into the Wild,” Levinson’s film follows the travails of a hot-shot producer named Ben (Robert De Niro) who fears his world is unraveling. Ben’s latest project — an action film starring Sean Penn — has a painfully arty ending that tests poorly with the public and a tantrum-prone director (Michael Wincott) who’s unwilling to change it. He’s also got two ex-wives, one of whom he still kind of loves (Robin Wright Penn), but not as much as his cell phone, which seems to command every waking moment of his life.

Another problem is Bruce Willis (playing himself), who refuses to shave the ZZ Top-style beard he’s grown for his new role, and a studio that will pull the plug on the film unless he does. Ben has to corner Willis’ spineless agent (John Turturro) and convince him that “the beard situation” needs to be resolved, harassing him at both a funeral and a manicure parlor.

Everyone’s self-medicating or selling a screenplay, there’s lots of easy sex on offer for those with clout, and people chase their espressos with Red Bull. And yet the slow but steady buildup to mayhem that’s the trademark of so much snowballing screwball comedy never seems to take off; Levinson’s film limps from subplot to subplot, with some of them — such as a story about Ben’s daughter, played by Kristen Stewart — dropped rather shoddily.

Levinson has a poor eye for satire here: The arty action film starring Penn — with Christ-like references and a dog getting shot in the head — is the sort of parody of an art film made by someone who’s never actually seen one. And Wincott’s prima donna director has got nothing on the real-life filmmaker Tony Kaye, who paid good money out of his own pocket to travel around the world giving vitriolic interviews attacking the (perfectly reasonable) studio cut of his own film, “American History X.”

Here’s the rub: nothing in the film, not even Willis’ facial-hair situation, is half as funny — or half as revealing — as that viral YouTube clip of Christian Bale melting down on the set of “Terminator 4,” or Mel Gibson going rabid on a cell phone call to his trophy girlfriend and screaming, “I deserve to be blown.” We live in strange times; the movies aren’t often strange enough to keep up.