What Just Happened
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There's world-weary, and then there's just plain weary.
The latter describes Robert De Niro's latest role as a veteran Hollywood film producer named Ben slogging his way through two very bad weeks in sunny Southern California. With his brow perpetually furrowed, Ben faces not one, not two, but three headaches—two professional, one personal.
Headache No. 1: dismal results from a test screening of a film he's producing. The audience despises the ending of Fiercely, in which Sean Penn's character gets shot and killed ... as does his dog. "My wife is still crying," one person writes on an evaluation. "Find out who made this and kill 'em," says another. Hard-nosed studio boss Lou Tarnow demands changes. Free-spirited auteur Jeremy Brunell resists. And pouts. And screams. And downs bottles of prescription medication.
Headache No. 2: Bruce Willis. Specifically, Willis' refusal to shave a beard of Old Testament proportions before shooting for his next film begins. But the studio is adamant: Shave the beard, or we close down the picture. And sue everyone involved. Willis is determined not to compromise his artistic integrity, a value he enunciates amid a barrage of f-words.
Headache No. 3: ex-wife No. 2, Kelly. Even as Ben and Kelly attend "separation therapy" classes, Ben kind of wants to get back together with her. And he kind of wants Kelly not to reupholster his favorite chair. Complicating matters further is the fact that Kelly is sleeping with a screenwriting acquaintance ... who kind of wants Ben to produce his next film.
And then there's Ben's realization that his 17-year-old daughter, Zoe, has probably been sleeping with a notoriously promiscuous Hollywood agent ... who's just committed suicide. Call it headache 3.5.
Ben is clearly consumed by his demanding career, but he tries to squeeze fatherly duties in at the margins as best his harried life allows. He dutifully starts his weekdays by driving to Kelly's house to take their two elementary-aged children to school. Then he picks up Zoe and drops her off as well. Zoe, especially, seems to relish the limited amount of attention Ben can give her.
Kelly reminds Ben not to let the kids watch more than 90 minutes of television a day in a discussion about taking them for the weekend. Ben's first wife complains that Zoe won't talk to her about what's happening in her life, saying, "Secrets seem to be the family hobby." She encourages Ben to try to talk to his daughter about what's going on.
At certain points, Ben seems as if he might be genuinely interested in some kind of reconciliation with Kelly. In therapy, they both haltingly confess points at which they were unfaithful.
As three goons cock their guns to pump Penn's character full of lead in Fiercely, he dramatically misappropriates Jesus' words, saying, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they ..." (The quote gets cut off by gunfire.)
An anonymous woman propositions Ben in a restaurant bathroom. We see her and Ben the next morning. She comments that he probably doesn't remember anything that they did because they were high on Ecstasy. (She uncovers a breast in this scene.)
Ben tries to talk Kelly into having sex with him as they sit on the edge of the bed. This and several other scenes show him sans pants and/or shirt, and wearing boxer shorts.
Ben finds a sock under Kelly's bed and confronts her about whether or not she's having sex with someone. Ben is consumed with jealously, so much so that he sits outside the house and watches the bedroom window. He sees shadowy silhouettes of two people removing clothes and embracing. Later Ben confronts the man about what's happening, and we find out that's he's married to someone else.
Crass comments are made about movie stars making women want to have sex. When initially confronted regarding his beard, Bruce brags that it hasn't interfered with his ability to score sex "24/7." He finishes his rant with a vulgar gesture and a repeated "invitation" involving oral sex.
We see Willis' agent walking around in his underwear. He talks about cutting back on antidepressants so he can have sex again. Ben confronts Zoe at a funeral about her relationship with the deceased Hollywood agent, and she tells him more than he wants to know about their sexual encounters. A European film financier shows up with a 16-year-old girl on each of his arms, bragging that together their age totals 32.
A suicide is blithely referenced. We repeatedly see a scene from Fiercely in which Penn's character tumbles down a slope before he's shot in the stomach and chest. Blood splatters on the camera in one scene. In another, we watch the bad guys keep shooting ... and shooting ... and shooting the dog that dies.
Jeremy responds to the studio's demands for a new ending by angrily pounding a coffee table. In a separate tantrum, Jeremy slices his finger in front of Ben to illustrate how he's bled for the film. Willis pitches an even bigger fit, knocking over a table and tearing through a prop room when asked to shave his beard.
Ben imagines ramming the head of his ex-wife's lover through a window. And he loses his patience for real with Willis' agent, hitting him in the crotch with a shovel handle and tossing him on top of the casket at the funeral.
Crude or Profane Language
At least 50 f-words. (Some of them are paired with "mother" or used in a sexual context). A half-dozen s-words. Jesus' and God's names are abused about 10 times total (including "g--d--n"). Audiences hear vulgar references to the female anatomy and see obscene gestures. Milder crudities revolve around a certain medical procedure and getting kicked in the crotch.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Jeremy complains that having to recut his film's finale has caused him to fall off the wagon after 11 months of sobriety. He mentions having had an Ativan (a prescription drug) with rum and Coke. Ben offers him a Valium, but Jeremy puts his "order" in for three Vicodin pills (which Ben's assistants have on hand). Later, Jeremy coos, "Placidil is my hero," referring to the sedative that enabled him to make changes to Fiercely's conclusion. We also hear other references to antidepressants and the prescription drug Klonopin (which Ben takes in a stressful moment).
Various scenes involve champagne and martinis at high-end restaurants and movie events. After the agent's suicide, a cynical observer alludes to his infamous drug use by saying, "All of Colombia is grieving." Several characters are shown smoking cigarettes or cigars. Penn says that he's got to have a seat on the studio's G5 jet so that he can smoke. Ben has a Red Bull for breakfast.
Other Negative Elements
Ben frequently lies about where he is and what he's doing, behavior usually motivated by the fact that he's always late for his next obligation. Ben jokes about stress by saying, "Suicide: It happens."
A "marriage" therapist gushes, "As we dig deeper and deeper, you're gonna feel so good about being apart that you're never gonna want to get back together."
Willis' agent has several retching fits.
Along with Robert Altman's The Player and Blake Edwards' S.O.B., What Just Happened belongs to a long-standing Hollywood tradition of self-skewering peeks behind the entertainment-industry curtain. This time, we get a portrait of a producer who is on the downward slope of influence in Tinseltown. "Power is an elusive thing," Ben says as the film opens. "You either have it, or you don't."
Turns out, Ben's losing his, and the picture is not pretty.
Those of us who try to look at Hollywood through a lens of biblical values are sometimes criticized for being too hard on its frequently hedonistic ethos and morality-free approach to entertainment. But anyone seeing this film might come away thinking just the opposite: That we're not being critical enough. Variety accurately sums up the attitudes on display in What Just Happened by saying, "Behavior on view here is treacherous, immoral, usurious, insincere, backstabbing, childish, preposterous and silly—in other words, business as usual."
The irony—or perhaps the film's main point, if you're feeling charitable—is that none of this greedy, immoral and perpetually adolescent behavior actually translates into happiness. At one point, Ben confronts the man who's sleeping with his ex. "I believe you're seeing my ex-wife," he says. "For god's sake, you're married." The accused responds with what might be the film's thesis: "I'm not happy. Is this a feeling you're unfamiliar with?"
Indeed, these self-absorbed characters have it all, at least by society's standards. But they're all forever chasing the next high—be it chemical, professional or sexual—trying to dull the pain of life in a world of perpetual pressure. It's a world in which you're only as good as your last performance, and even that is suspect. All for the sake of keeping the Hollywood money machine rolling along smoothly.
Toward the conclusion, Bruce Willis delivers a cynical eulogy for a dead friend in which he offers this commentary: "Hunter S. Thompson once said to me, 'The movie business is a cruel and shallow money trench, where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.' And then he added, 'There's also a negative side.'"
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Robert De Niro as Ben; Robin Wright Penn as Kelly; Stanley Tucci as Scott Solomon; John Turturro as Dick Bell; Kristen Stewart as Zoe; Michael Wincott as Jeremy Brunell; Bruce Willis and Sean Penn as Themselves
Barry Levinson ( )