Barry Levinson has news for us: the Hollywood film industry is full of insincere people. Once we get past that shocking revelation, we can relax and let Levinson’s new comic drama, What Just Happened?, do what it does best — make cruel sport of the people who make cruel sport of movie audiences all over the world, every Friday of the year, as if their careers depended on it.
What Just Happened?, the sprawling satirical chronicle of the comings and goings of an A-list Los Angeles movie producer named Ben (Robert De Niro), is the creation of writer-producer Art Linson, a showbiz outsider-turned-insider whose résumé ranges from early soft-core exploitation (Car Wash, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) to big-name above-the-line auteurist items (Heat, Fight Club) to latter-day art films with a purpose (Lords of Dogtown, The Black Dahlia, Into the Wild). Along the way, Linson has thrived on his relationships with such talented filmmaking tyros as Brian De Palma, Warren Beatty, Michael Mann, David Mamet, Alfonso Cuarón, Jonathan Demme, and Sean Penn. So he knows very well the quaking bog on which our Ben trods, his Prada loafers squishing as he makes the rounds.
The biggest headache in Ben’s life, aside from the ongoing tussle with his two ex-wives and their children and the related therapy sessions, is his latest picture, a thing called Fiercely. From the looks of it in the studio screening room, it’s a no-more-than-usually-stupid crime actioner starring the aforementioned Penn, who essentially plays himself. Ben is shepherding Fiercely through the pre-release marketing phase, and it’s failing miserably. The preview audience in Costa Mesa used it for toilet paper. They especially hated a bit of gratuitous violence in the finale in which the Penn character’s dog is shot at point blank range by the bad guys just before they kill his master. Meaning it’s okay to dispatch Penn, just don’t touch the mutt.
The director of Fiercely, an aging punk-artsy Englishman named Jeremy Brunell (delightfully hammy job by Michael Wincott, in Keith Richards drag), is prepared to defend the dog’s assassination to the death, or to at least miss lunch doing so, but he appears to be overruled by the studio chief, Lou (Catherine Keener at her most imperiously dismissive), who can read the negative numbers and who has the final call. Ben is being squeezed between this pretentious Brit twat on whom he’s staked his reputation, and the studio machinery. The machinery smells a turkey. Everyone’s sweating Fiercely‘s impending public screening at the Cannes Film Festival.
Hovering in the wings, almost literally, are the other people competing for Ben’s attention: a screenwriter (Stanley Tucci) who’s trying to pitch Ben on a project, and whom Ben suspects is boffing the more recent of Ben’s ex-wives; bombastic Bruce Willis, playing himself with shaved head and full beard as — surprise — a temperamental actor trying to jump-start his career; Willis’ agent, a prissy guy with a bow tie and gastro trouble (John Turturro, strongly resembling Orville Redenbacher); and the ex-wife in question, blond and trophy-ish Kelly (Robin Wright Penn). We get the feeling Ben sincerely wants to reunite with Kelly. If only he hadn’t discovered that strange, single argyle sock underneath her bed — their former bed before he moved out.
Then there’s the funeral for the unfortunate talent agent who committed suicide, or as Variety headlined: “Ten Per Center Puts Himself in Turnaround.” Fake tears all around. Lotsa lunches. Tantrums aplenty are thrown. Vicodins disappear down the hatch at a frightening rate. Eager young starlets follow Ben into restaurant men’s rooms. It’s as if he’s hurtling around LA with a thermometer cartooned on the side of his head. It’s glowing bright red and about to pop.
Ben is heading for a crack-up, not unlike other De Niro characters we’ve known. For all his make-or-break power, Ben spends most of the film either sucking eggs or running for cover. It’s lonely at the top. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tinsel Town gantseh macher Monroe Stahr from The Last Tycoon springs to mind, as does another De Niro golden gofer, Ace Rothstein in Casino — important men confined in a gilded cage. Levinson, Linson, and De Niro make sure Ben performs all the little tell-tale rituals, like coloring his chest hair. There’s even a Taxi Driver-style sequence with a jealous man spying sexual silhouettes in an upper window from his car. Best of all are Ben’s exhausted, automatic ripostes — the demands on his time come flying at him so incessantly he barely notices them, like gnats.
What Just Happened? is precise, smart, and very funny in its specifics but rather clumsy and obvious when it comes to the big picture. It doesn’t tell us anything at all we didn’t already know, but for bitter laughs and the expansive scenery chewing of the entire cast — De Niro wisely remains the most restrained — it’s hard to beat as a showbiz timewaster. Even at idling speed, Levinson’s built-in magic touch for ensemble anarchy and Linson’s dialogue guarantee the hilariousness of Ben’s agony. Toss in the borrowed Ennio Morricone soundtrack music and Nina Simone’s “Mr. Bojangles” — instant West LA playlist — and stir lightly with your favorite tranquilizer.
It takes us a few minutes to figure out what’s happening in Ballast. But gradually we realize that Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.), is so stunned by the suicide of his twin brother Darius that he, too, is trying to kill himself in the modest Mississippi Delta house — a shack, really — he inhabits just a few feet away from the home of Marlee (Tarra Riggs), the single mother of twelve-year-old James (JimMyron Ross), who happens to be the late Darius’ son. Lawrence and Marlee are now the heirs to Darius’ beleaguered convenience store, and James has business dealings of his own, ripping off local crack dealers. The three main characters, all played by African-American non-professionals, walk around like zombies, trying to get a grip.
Lance Hammer, a film art director, wrote, produced, directed, and edited Ballast, his debut feature, in an ultra-naturalistic style with a documentary look. Despite that, its material is so melodramatic only the characters’ muffled emotions keep it from complete hysteria. This style benefits the film in its first half, then falls apart as James and his relatives play out their roles. We find ourselves caring about the characters and wishing they had somehow found a less self-conscious movie to live in. Ballast is worth seeing as an example of the lengths to which a filmmaker will go to establish his career — but don’t ever mistake it for sociology.