In cinema there are two portraits of Hollywood. There’s the sunny, ambitious backstage musical that idolizes The Movies as the pinnacle of a creative career. (I think the most recent incarnation may have been The Muppet Movie, more than 30 years ago.)
Then there’s the dark side, where the heartless machine chews up insecure actors and everyone is a backstabbing phony.
I grew up believing in the sunny side, so when I lost my innocence, I came to really hate that dark side. Sunset Blvd.is brilliant, but it’s painful to watch. The Player put me in a funk for days. I laughed at the cynicism in Tropic Thunder, which portrays actors so shallow that some audiences were genuinely offended.
And What Just Happened, released the same year as Tropic Thunder, is absolutely disgusting (yet very well made).
R for language, violent images, sexual content, drugs
Written by Art Linson, a long-time producer speaking presumably from experience, What Just Happened features Robert DeNiro as Ben, a movie producer on the verge of being named one of the top 20 in his field by an influential magazine. He flashes us back through the year that got him where he is now — on the set of the magazine’s photo shoot.
The year in question involves a film from a hot young director (Michael Wincott, borrowing Keith Richards from Johnny Depp) starring Sean Penn as a cop with a dog. Audiences hate that the dog dies in the end, but the director refuses to give it up; it’s his artistic vision. While selling the dog movie, Ben is trying to placate a difficult actor named Bruce Willis (played by Bruce Willis) who refuses to shave his beard, in violation of his contract, days before the cameras are slated to roll. The money men are threatening to pull the plug (thus ruining Ben) if Willis doesn’t comply.
Meantime, Ben is in post-divorce therapy (!) with his wife so that they can learn to stay friends.
Unholying the Holy Water
I understand that people like this sort of movie. I almost understand the appeal (it’s the same reason black comedy works, right?). And yet, having brushed against the industry, I am nauseated by movies like What Just Happened, which show the shallowness, the power-hunger, the ass kissing, and the ruthlessness of Hollywood. The people involved are so neurotic and selfish it’s a wonder the town is able to produce human commodities like romance, drama, and stories with morals.
I hate the Oscars and Monday-morning box-office receipts. The Oscars are about who’s in, who’s popular, and what everyone is wearing. And box-office receipts don’t care whether a movie is trash or treasure, only whether the marketing department was able to sell tickets.
As a person who first believed in the magic of the backstage musicals, I suppose I think of the cinema as sacred. That’s partly why I’m a critic and a devourer of new movies, because I’m looking for the treasure among the trash, for the movie that sums up the human condition and does so eloquently and artfully.
Seeing movies like What Just Happened is like discovering my priest was a pedophile; that’s not what my church is supposed to be about, and that’s not why I keep going back every Sunday; I don’t approve, and I’d almost rather have lived believing the lie.
I recognize that What Just Happened is very good. It’s well polished, it’s coherent, it’s rich with internal consistency. It’s not surprising that a story coming from professional filmmakers would be professionally made. I have to give it a mild recommendation, in spite of my own distaste for the subject matter.
Seeing this kind of movie makes me want to go find some obscure favorite that really was made by a lone auteur working on the fringes of the system: someone like Michelangelo Antonioni, who, like the prima donna director in What Just Happened, did something so daring and unconventional that he got both booed and applauded at Cannes.
Leave it to the soulless machine to reduce Antonioni’s new vision for cinema to a question of whether or not the dog dies in the end.