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.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186