Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What Just Happened

What Just Happened (Barry Levinson, 2008) Ben (Robert De Niro) is a producer in Hollywood and he has a tough life.  His new movie starring Sean Penn just previewed and the cards don't look good.  The director, wanting to be "edgy," has a scene where the bad guys shoot Penn's dog, then kill Penn.  Audiences are upset about the dog.  The studio (run by Catherine Keener) is upset about the audiences and wants to re-cut the film, the director is upset about his "vision" being changed and refuses to cooperate.  Ben wants the to keep the director happy, the studio happy, the audiences happy, the two ex-wives (including Robin Wright) and three ex-children (including Kristen Stewart) happy, while still worrying about where he's standing in a Vanity Fair "Power in Hollywood" photoshoot.

On top of that, he's got a big budget movie starting its shoot on Friday and the star (Bruce Willis playing Bruce Willis) is being payed $20 million to star in it, but there's one little hitch—he's grown "a Grizzly Adams" beard, and the studio is panicking—people want to see Bruce Willis when they see Bruce Willis and they want Ben to coax the temperamental star to shave it off, which he refuses to do for "artistic reasons."*  Ben's life is an endless soliloquy of superficial arguments, hastily-composed rationalizations and insincere ego-stroking in the gamesmanship of Hollywood, played over a Blue-Tooth behind the wheel of a constantly in-motion Lexus. 

Based on producer Art Linson's book (sub-titled "Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line") and adapted by him for this film, it's a nice study of how removed from reality, logic and best practices the industry is.  But, at the same time Barry Levinson's film of it, while duly making note of the sliding loyalties Ben displays, also seems to expect you to feel sorry for him.  One would, if one didn't want to have this life.  There is no tragedy here, merely minor inconveniences that whittle away at Ben's soul and career.  But, he still has a roof over his head.  He has a car (and the insurance for it), a cell-phone, a blue-tooth, a fancy-schmancy espresso machine, the ear of many Hollywood players, and the phone numbers of ambitious actresses.  Boo to the Hoo.  Yes, Hollywood's crazy...but it's not homeless and crazy.

That's why backstage dramas in tinsel-town are really only good when played for laughs, and should only be reserved when the writer-director-producer has completely run out of ideas (and when that happens, they should read a book, instead).  You look at movies like The Oscar, or The Big Knife, with the hand-wringing of the elite, and you can look right into the soul of industry people who have lost touch with their audiences**...like Norma Desmond screeching about her woes.  It's why Sunset Blvd. is such a classic gem of a movie.  Norma is crazy...and pathetic...and clueless.

Howard Hawks had it right.  After awhile, he was making movies about making movies—but, they were well-veiled allegories.  Anytime Hawks had a group of disparate people coming together with a single goal in mind, he was talking about what he and his crew did for a living...only they were flying the mail, or capturing live rhinos, driving the cattle, getting the headline, or battling the monster at the research station...anything but making movies.  That would be as much fun as watching sausages being made.  If you want to complain about being in the entertainment industry, try pumping gas...then, have a drink or climb onto the shrink's couch.  Don't get "meta" on the audience.  They go to the movies to escape their troubles, not hear about yours.

But, like Fellini, pretty soon the writers start penning their autobiographies.  Linson might be thinking that he did a good job changing the names to protect the innocent, but listening to  his DVD audio commentary with director Levinson, one hears the vagueness, the "rote"-ness of his expressions, as if he's just passing through, and once the credits come up, he's already out the door (he's gone before the "A Barry Levinson Film" credit comes up).  The two were in separater facilities recording their tracks, and as Linson gets up he says "Good seein' ya, Barry" "uh...talking to ya," says Levinson.  "Oh.  Yeah...well..." says Linson.  "We should get together when you come to New York."

Yes, we "really" should.

* True story, although I won't mention the movie or the star (it's easily found, actually).  But, it reminds me of the struggles Richard Donner had while making Superman, the Movie—making a man fly was easy compared to star-negotiations.  Donner had a meeting with Marlon Brando, where the actor was pitching character ideas that would keep him from having to appear on camera, like playing Superman's kryptonian father as a suitcase or "a green bagel," and Gene Hackman didn't want to shave his moustache to play Lex Luthor.  Donner finally said to Hackman on-set. "Look, Gene, you shave yours off and I'll shave mine off."  Hackman agreed, shaved and came back on-set.  "Okay, now it's your turn."  Donner then peeled off the fake moustache he's been wearing, which delighted Hackman.

** (The same could be said for politicians—anybody in Washington looking at cutting the health-plans for those in the legislative branch...if not, why not?)

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