Remember the one about the two circus employees who scoop up the elephant dung left during a 3-ring performance in the Dubuques and Peorias across the land? With shovels in play, one guy saying to the other, "Maybe we should get different work." And the other guy saying back, "What, and get out of show business?"
Seeing Robert De Niro again as a Hollywood movie producer in the new film, "What Just Happened?" made me recall that tired but true-ringing joke. Whether your pay is $8.50 an hour or twenty mil a picture, the verse in Ecclesiastes got it right when it was written that "All is vanity."
But that's not all our hero, Ben (De Niro), has in this comedy/drama written by real producer Art Linson from his book, What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line. The fictitious Ben is a power-hitter producer in La La Land's cinema community and he's got lots of material stuff to go with it.
He's about to start shooting a film that stars Bruce Willis (played by Bruce Willis) while putting the finishing touches on another titled, "Fiercely," which stars Sean Penn (played by Sean Penn). Yes, both of these modern-day matinee idols play themselves, especially Mr. Willis. (You'll get what I mean by that when you see this film, directed by another real producer, Barry Levinson.)
The material stuff includes a pair of families neither of which Ben lives with now. His older ex-wife is ensconced in a lovely Hollywood mansion with their teenaged daughter and Ben and his second ex-wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn) are in therapy trying to adjust (mainly Ben) to not being together any longer. Their two young children live with Kelly in another lovely Hollywood mansion. Ben pays all the bills at the computer in his cool L.A. pad---all by his lonesome.
Domesticity has not been kind to Ben, but neither are the current professional things going on in his life. His director of "Fiercely" (played by Michael Wincott much like Keith Richards might) is chafing---to put it mildly---at changing the final bloody scene that shows Sean Penn's character and a dog being shot to death by bad guys. At a screening of the film, the focus group is repulsed by the grisly gun play.
Ben knows box office may suffer if the director's wish to maintain, uh, "artistic integrity" isn't quashed by the money folks behind the picture. And perhaps, Ben's hoped-for trip to Cannes to screen "Fiercely" for Europe's cinema elite may not happen if he doesn't alter the scene to a more uplifting, satisfying conclusion. This contention plays heavily at the close of the film being reviewed here which was actually screened at the Cannes Film Festival last May.
Leading man, Bruce Willis (again, as himself) is reluctant to shave the beard he's been growing for the past six months before Ben's upcoming picture starts shooting. Ben and Bruce tangle. Bruce is not about to capitulate even with threats from Ben and others on the new project that Mr. Willis will get his recalcitrant ass sued if he doesn't lose the facial fuzz before getting back in front of the camera. Bruce with a beard will also damage box office.
Add to the Bruce scenario of "What Just Happened" Mr. Willis' wussy agent played by John Turturro, who is appropriately named, Dick. Agent Dick tells Ben that he's afraid of Willis and all of his other actor clients, as well. Dick has stomach problems. Ben can't get Dick to tell Bruce the beard must go.
Another dim aspect of Ben's life is that he suspects Scott, a screenwriter friend of his (played by Stanley Tucci), is carrying on with Kelly even though Ben and she have been divorced for nearly two years.
Needless to say, I can't mention that our beleaguered producer learns at the funeral of, yet, another Hollywood agent that Ben's 17-year-old daughter, Zoe (played by Kristen Stewart), has been having an affair with the deceased before he killed himself. Bruce Willis gives the homily at the Jewish service---with beard and yarmulke.
All of this sounds pretty darned funny, and there are laughs---although a sort of a dark, nervous laughter. The film is also pregnant with incessant buzz and turmoil and fails to give us anyone with whom to sympathize. I didn't like Ben, or Dick, or Bruce. And Sean, although he dies so magnificently and repeatedly in the oft-run ending, seems a little too cocky in his scenes shot in the crowd at Cannes .
Ben's ex-wives are terribly flawed and hurt by their past association with Ben. And Ben's teenaged daughter looks to be in, at least, her 19th nervous breakdown. The only characters to feel good about, I guess, would be Ben and Kelly's young, school-aged boy and girl. They're just swell but show up in the movie for only a moment or two.
"What Just Happened?" Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line" is another very smart cinematic round of what I call, "Doin' the Hollywood Reflexive." Not so much as what F. Scott Fitzgerald would have Monroe Stahr do---but still and totally and memorably---De Niro.