A Trip Through La-La Land That Feels Unnervingly Real

    {grate 2.5}

    If you wanna get big in Hollywood, you have to play according to the vulturous codes behind the glossy-haired, white-smiled sheen — cozy up to immoral, nasty and plain ol’ evil industry folk (usually Jews) palming all that glitz and glam like it were pocket change. We’re familiar with this ugly truth. Yeah, the sunset is just two-dimensional particleboard, and the climactic kiss was shot about two thousand times over. And after everything’s cut and pasted, the surplus grime gets swept under the red carpet, reserved for supermarket gossip fodder.

    But apparently there’s a gentler version of L.A.’s pecking order, so infamously idolized and feared. In “What Just Happened?,” adapted by Art Linson from his memoirs as a film producer, Hollywood is less about tabloid theatrics and more about cell phone bickering, divorcee struggles and popping pills to enhance an otherwise disappointing and unvarying tedium.

    While it’s not the first time those bigshots with BlackBerrys have poked fun at their own game, director Barry Levinson frames the daily complications of a midlife moviemaker in jarring hyperrealism. In the end, we discover that what matters isn’t really Bruce Willis’ grizzly-man beard or a stack of test-screening cards filled out with “fuck yous”— it’s the ability to cope with inevitable (and mostly shitty) change. As the endearingly disheveled Ben, Robert De Niro reaches this slow-arching realization with the steady restraint of a man slipping from the last rungs of the power ladder.

    Ben’s life unfolds upon the first screening of “Fiercely,” his latest multimillion-dollar blockbuster and a clear dud, evident from the crowd’s yawns and scuffling fest. But then comes the finale: The hero is murdered, his loveable dog leaps across the screen, and — to the audience’s utter horror — the bad guys murder Fido, too. Breaking a cardinal rule of Hollywood (never kill your cutest character), the pooch twitches stiffly, blood-soaked. Ben sinks into his chair.

    What the hell just happened? Of course, it’s a question frequently overturned.

    Ben’s otherwise unordinary life is peppered with this kind of controlled humor — never straining too far from the realm of truth but always mocking itself and feeding us the archetypal characters we expect from a movie about movies (stiff-lipped studio chief, infantile leading actors, etc). Funniest case in point: John Tuturro playing a neurotic agent with digestive problems and a penchant for pedicures. This is a world where stars make the real money and producers are, well, “mayonnaise on a bad sandwich.”

    Apart from the standard crises of Hollywood (involving a fatter, fussier Willis and the scruples of making a box-office flop) perhaps the most compelling relationship in the whole fiasco is Ben’s startlingly normal interaction with second ex-wife Kelly (Robin Wright Penn).

    Between separation therapy and ex-sex, Ben finds another man’s sock under his old bed and launches into a rather heart-wrenching breakdown.

    “What Just Happened?” culminates in an ill-fated Cannes premiere. Despite begging on hands and knees for his bratty lead’s permission to change the final scene, the damn dog still dies. The French snub their noses. Ben misses his plane, and his ex-wife re-upholsters his “ex-couch.”

    But at the end of the day, we’re somewhat comforted by the fact that in Hollywood, neither fortune nor failure ever lasts very long.

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