“It’s hard to produce a good movie,” says Catherine Keener’s studio head to producer Robert De Niro after a disastrous test screening of his latest project.
That’s something that Art Linson knows all too well, having drawn on a life making movies both commercially successful (The Untouchables, Heat) and not (Fight Club, This Boy’s Life) to write his 2002 memoir What Just Happened?
A caustic chronicle of back-stabbing, ego trips and Tinseltown power plays, Linson’s book (subtitled Bitter Hollywood Tales From The Front Line) explored the production of such box-office duds as The Edge, Great Expectations and Pushing Tin in hilariously uncensored detail.
Why, then, does the film only pack half its impact? Possibly because, in presenting a fictionalised distillation of his ups and mostly downs in the industry, Linson has drawn his fangs, opting for mild, Entourage-lite parody instead of a full-on Player stitch-up.
Its universe is a cracked mirror of Hollywood, with some actors playing themselves (Bruce Willis, Sean Penn) and others cast as types (Michael Wincott as a bad boy auteur, John Turturro as a neurotic agent). Having worked with Linson on fi ve fi lms, Robert De Niro is ideally suited to playing his harassed alter-ego Ben, an insider who’s beset by problems both professional (the death of a dog in Penn’s new actioner, Willis’ refusal to shave off his ‘Grizzly Adams’ beard) and personal (a disintegrating marriage and a wild child daughter).
Bob packs punch, but it’s too sympathetic a portrait to really ring true, Art going as soft on himself as he is on the system that pays his wages. Barry Levinson’s comedy is stronger on the incidental detail: Keener ruthlessly expelling an underling from her office, or Variety’s acid reporting of an agent’s suicide (‘10 per center
puts himself in turnaround’).
But the big finale at Cannes feels inauthentic – a bit of a letdown from the director who so brilliantly pilloried Robert Evans in Wag The Dog