Robert De Niro plays a Hollywood producer who's desperately trying to hold it together in What Just Happened, which is also trying to hold it together, teetering and tottering between straight-ahead realism and once-over-lightly satire. Producers aren't often portrayed sympathetically in movies, despite having produced them, and that may account for this one's inability to nail down a tone, given that it was written by a producer (Art Linson, who adapted his 2002 memoir). But it's nevertheless enjoyable as a behind-the-scenes look at exactly what Hollywood producers do: They desperately try to hold a movie together while everybody else - director, star, agent, studio chief - tries to pull it apart.
We open at a test screening, which turns ugly after the film culminates with the lead (Sean Penn) and his dog getting shot to death. (Sample preview card: "My wife is still crying, asshole!") It seems we have yet another self-indulgent director on our hands, this one played by Michael Wincott, who looks and sounds like Heath Ledger doing Keith Richards. But that's just one of the plates De Niro's sad-sack circus clown is trying to keep spinning. There's also Bruce Willis (as himself), who refuses to shave the rabbinical beard he's been cultivating for months in order to start shooting his next action picture. And there are not one but two ex-wives to maintain in the manner to which they have become accustomed.
One of them, played by Robin Wright Penn, left him because he kept taking calls on his surgically implanted headset when he was supposed to be, say, making love to his wife. What Just Happened has been given a goose by director Barry Levinson, who speeds scenes up to show us how fast everybody's running in place. But there's also a sense of lassitude, of wasting one's life a headache at a time, that has the stink of reality about it. If you were ever thinking of becoming a Hollywood player, this will definitely curb your enthusiasm.