A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this mature showbiz satire -- which depicts the ups and downs of a Hollywood producer -- includes scenes in which prescription drugs are passed around as cavalierly as breath mints, and a major subplot revolves around sexual jealousy. A major character, who has completed rehab, falls off the wagon, and the film-within-a-film that the producer is working to save features gory gun violence (as well as a discussion of how much violence is too much on screen). There's also lots of strong language (including "f--k" and derivations thereof) and several brands referenced or on display.
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What's the story?
Based on the nonfiction memoir by producer Art Linson, WHAT JUST HAPPENED? follows Ben (Robert De Niro), a successful producer who's trying desperately to stay that way. But the studio is criticizing his one film for graphic violence -- specifically, the shooting of a dog -- and his latest project in pre-production looks doomed when star Bruce Willis (playing himself) reports to the set more than a little overweight and sporting a huge beard that the studio wants gone but Willis wants to keep. At the same time, Ben's trying to figure out his relationship with his daughters and his estranged wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn). He's in for a very busy, very complicated two weeks.
It's said that people who like laws or sausages shouldn't watch how either of them is made. What Just Happened? adds movies to that list, as Ben explains what it is, exactly, that a producer does. Unfortunately for Ben, it seems that what a producer does is spend entirely too much time trapped between a rock and a hard place, as he tries to satisfy both the studio heads who want to make safe investments and the actors and directors who want to make art -- and a little money. Watching Ben cajole, flatter, bluff, and block his way through phone call after phone call and meeting after meeting is both funny and exhausting -- can't he get a break?
Is it any good?
The film makes viewers ask whether Ben deserves a break; as played by De Niro, Ben doesn't exactly engender our sympathy, but then again, he wouldn't ask for it, either. In the middle of the week, Ben discovers that Kelly is seeing his married friend/business associate, Scott (Stanley Tucci); when Ben confronts him, Scott offers "I'm not happy ... is this an unfamiliar feeling to you?" What Just Happened? is loaded with great actors in small parts -- Willis and Sean Penn playing themselves, Catherine Keener as a predatory studio exec, John Turturro as a nervous agent, and Michael Wincott as a pill-popping pretentious director -- and De Niro gives the same kind of sly, understated performance that he last delivered in Levinson's Wag the Dog. What Just Happened? may be a little "inside" for mass appeal, but anyone curious about how movies actually get made -- and, for that matter, unmade -- will enjoy it.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the business of modern Hollywood. Is art possible in the world of commercial entertainment, or will financial concerns always win out? What audience do you think movies like this one are made for? Families can also discuss some of the excesses indulged in by the heavy-handed studios and self-centered actors. Is the film exaggerating these for effect, or is this an accurate depiction of the realities of modern show business?
- In theaters: October 16, 2008
- On DVD or streaming: February 24, 2009
- Cast: Bruce Willis, Robert De Niro, Sean Penn
- Director: Barry Levinson
- Studio: Tribeca Productions
- Genre: Comedy
- Run time: 107 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language, some violent images, sexual content and some drug material.
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