Director Barry Levinson hasn't had much luck lately - after Bandits, which was a good though not anything very noteworthy comedy caper, he had two colossal duds in a row- Envy and Man of the Year- which, despite an otherwise impressive host of films (i.e. Diner, Rainman, Sleepers, even Toys) could have threatened to throw him off track ala Rob Reiner. But in a way What Just Happened was relatable for Levinson, despite it being the stories of Art Linson, semi-famous producer who's had hits and misses throughout his career, and at the same time gave him some ample material for some sardonic, spot-on satire of the industry. It's not the Player, don't get me wrong, but it gives its winks and nods to the egomania, the preciousness of directors and stars, and how personal lives get caught up in the mix without getting too smug with us common moviegoers.
Probably the funniest, as sort of a near running gag, is the latest film that producer Ben (De Niro) is being test-screened for audiences; a rough cut of "Fiercly" starring Sean Penn (who, as with Bruce Willis, plays "Himself" in the film) disturbs the audience because, on top of a bleak end for its hero, a dog is killed on screen (this, for all the wrong reasons, is hysterical funny, if only for the deadpan reaction from DeNiro to the insanely negative response cards). The director, however, a British hipster (brilliantly played by Michael Wincott), doesn't take it lightly that he doesn't have final cut. This brings around what seems like a moment of levity midway... and then back to the start when it comes time for Cannes. On top of this is Willis's 'plot-line' involving a beard he won't shave off. It's almost like a slight reprisal of his part in Four Rooms, only put to a much bigger, aggrandizing maximum. Both of these, much like seeing certain characters in a Christopher Guest movie, elicit laughs anytime they're on screen.
And the rest of the movie is... still very good. Aside from some scenes where Levinson decides to rush things along via the speedy transitions, he provides a style that suits the feel of the material, of Ben trying to balance his personal struggles (an ex-wife he can't totally let go of, and his rebellious teen daughter with a secret) with the eternal BS of getting work done in an industry concerned, a lot more often than not, with the final dollar over artistic integrity. It's not quite reality TV, but it has that unpredictable, on-the-fly hand-held feeling all the same, which is a method much more effective used here than in Man of the Year. And De Niro is also surprisingly good (maybe not a surprise to some, but considering some of his hit-or-miss turns in recent fare), as he doesn't lay too low-key in the part. One can probably see De Niro having studied producers - not just Linson himself but others- for long stretches to get the right steps for each deliberate step in ego-maniacal Hollywood.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy some near classic self-conscious satire on an industry that deserves anything those in it can dish back out.