The biggest problem with movies about the film industry is that they are greatly heralded by the very people they are meant to skewer: those working in the industry.
They are unavoidably penned and brought to the screen by insiders with lots of knowledge of the arcane inner workings of the industry, and the movies like to show that off. Critics and film journalists tend to love them because, with few exceptions, critics and journalists are peripheral to the moviemaking process. They tend to know a lot about things they are not a part of, which allows them to laugh smugly at the in jokes their friends don't get.
What Just Happened?, the director Barry Levinson's film version of the book What Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Lines by Art Linson, is definitely an insider's take on the industry. Linson, who wrote the screenplay and got a producer credit as well, has been behind such hits as The Untouchables, Casualties of War, Fight Club and Into the Wild. What Just Happened?, however, has no smugness about it, no Hollywood "with it" superiority. It is not a satire so it does not assume its audience is in on the joke. And, unlike other takes on the film and TV industry, there is no presumption that a simple look inside the entertainment industry will leave filmgoers agog.
Instead, this is a well paced, accessibly cool and sometimes hilarious depiction of two weeks in the life of a Hollywood producer, Ben (Robert De Niro), a man past his prime who tries to maintain some self-respect while balancing two broken marriages, two troubled movies and three kids. His professional life is complicated by a $20 million (Dh73.5m) movie star - Bruce Willis, playing himself - who refuses to lose weight or shave his beard.
He also has to contend with a madman director, played by Michael Wincott, who fights against recutting a final scene, insisting: "The dog has to die!" When he doesn't get his way, the director erupts in a table-pounding fit that sends M&Ms flying around the studio head's office. The studio head, Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener), watches stoically. "I've lost $25 million before," she says smooth as ice. "I'll lose $25 million again."
De Niro in the lead role is the Everyman of producers, struggling to maintain personal and professional lives so discombobulated that in the end it hardly matters what his profession is. He is the straight man among a host of colourful characters - some sympathetic, some pathetic - who at times border on parody. John Turturro's Dick Bell, a weak-spined agent who is afraid of his clients and just about everything else in life, is so dislikeable that you can't help but love him, and Willis's send-up of himself is refreshing and funny. Even Sean Penn, the epitome of a Hollywood type who takes himself way too seriously, is game for self-parody that is so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable.
There's been a lot of criticism of What Just Happened? because it avoids going for the jugular and outing every miscue of the film industry. Certainly the main players in this movie - Levinson, Linson and De Niro - know exactly where the bodies are buried; if they wanted to engage in slash-and-burn satire or tell-all memoirs, they could. Though that may have been the movie some people wanted to see, it was not the movie the filmmakers wanted to make. This choice is not necessarily a failure, no matter what the critics say. After all, who's making movies and who's writing about them?