Robert De Niro might just be the greatest living actor, and part of that is attributed to the fact that he is able to do comedy and drama equally well. In comedies, he usually plays a grumpy, emotionless intellectual dealing with other people who get on his nerves. It has become a character De Niro is now synonymous with. He’s played that role to considerable success, and sometimes to grand failure. His performance in What Just Happened is an anomaly, because it falls right in the middle.
What Just Happened is centered around Ben (De Niro), a Hollywood producer. However, I wouldn’t say it is about Ben – it is more about how Ben deals with the crazy characters around him. Included in that circle of insanity are a loose-cannon British auteur, his demanding ex-wife (Robin Wright) and Bruce Willis, who plays prima donna version of himself that refuses to shave off his unsightly beard. I have a feeling that De Niro’s presence was only to react to these crazy characters, and I feel as the film’s lead, somehow he is underused. The aim of this film was to show the downfall of Ben, but being the stagnant, cold character he is, we don’t really notice much change in him.
Showbusiness satires are tricky to pull off. The world loves to see Hollywood make fun of itself, and there have been some brilliant films that have pulled that off perfectly and were biting, edgy satires on what we perceive is the height of success. However, others don’t do it too well, and become messy and gratuitous What Just Happened is squarely down the middle – it is never as biting as it should be, but it is also relatively well-constructed, which I attribute mostly to the solid direction of Barry Levinson, the precise script by Art Linson, who based it on his own life, and the restrained performance by Robert De Niro. The trio managed to pull together a film that could have been a lot worse and evolved into a mess of a pseudo-satire, but they could have also made it a lot better. Kristen Stewart by far had the most interesting character in the film, but yet all we see of her is two or three scenes. I understand the whole concept of her vague past were done for effect so that the audience knows the same about her as her father, but their relationship should’ve been explored more.
What Just Happened unfortunately stands at the point where it is neither good enough or bad enough to be memorable. It was a good effort from those involved, but it was so plain and underwhelming, it is impossible to really remember it. Sadly, it is another one of De Niro’s good, but forgettable performances, and while it has some really funny moments, it isn’t as brilliant as they creators thought it would be. I wouldn’t call this bad, or even disappointing. It is entertaining enough to keep your interested, but not enough for you to really remember it.