The games men play
Abbey screens dark satire "What Just Happened"

by Judith Reynolds

When a Hollywood producer finds an argyle sock under his ex-wife’s bed, the search is on. In Director Barry Levinson’s latest film, “What Just Happened,” Ben (Robert De Niro) won’t let go of the sock. He scarfs it away, puts it into his glove compartment, and begins to notice men’s ankles. He’s in pursuit of the bastard romancing the wife he divorced 18 months ago.

What is it with men? Anyone who poaches on a guy’s romantic territory, ancient or current, has to be smoked out and defeated. Anyone who makes a dismissive remark has to be put in his place. Leveled. No wonder life is so exhausting for the likes of Ben the producer, an animal on the prowl – alert and threatened – all the time. He’s constantly on the move, on the scent as it were. He drives his car to meetings while he conducts meetings on his head phone. It may be an old story to say that modern work life is a jungle, but what better place to show the extremes than the congested freeways of America’s moving office park – Los Angeles.

The stray sock is merely a prop, and a minor one at that. As a plot point, it barely registers. Yet in “What Just Happened,” it says a lot about male competitiveness. As wise men have said: When two men fight over a woman, it’s not about the woman. And when men jockey over a contract, it’s not about the contract. It’s ultimately about status and position.

The film begins and ends with a photo shoot for Vanity Fair magazine. Hollywood producers and directors have been assembled for one of those mega group shots.

They casually arrange themselves in front of oversized letters that spell out POWER. It’s a male world; naturally, and one’s position is constantly under negotiation. There is a fly in this universe, however, for Ben’s latest movie project, “Fiercely,” is under the wing of a female studio boss, Lou (Catherine Keener). She’s cool, calm, and objects to the brutal climax. If the studio is to take the film to the Cannes Film Festival, the ending must be changed.

Be prepared, the nasty ending appears several times, and it includes a dog being shot. The writer-director, Jeremy Brunell (played by Michael Wincott, the squirmy Canadian actor who specializes in wacky villains) indulges in power plays, tantrums, drug-infused blowouts, and a surprise or two along the way. As I’ve said, be prepared.

The film proceeds through several days in the life of Ben, a father and husband several times over, a businessman who spends his time schmoozing, cajoling, seducing, threatening, bullying, and constantly calculating his position. The movie is a day-in-the-life of someone you never want to be: overscheduled, hanging on, getting even, placating, and in one hilarious scene watching an over-the-top and bearded Bruce Willis play an angry, spoiled A-list actor – himself.

Willis’s beard is another minor prop that drives this dark male fairy tale of vanity and endless competition. The star refuses to shave a beard that took him six months to grow. The producers want it gone, because a beard will turn off the key demographic for Willis – a fan base of “pre-menopausal women.” Did someone say satire?

One day folds into the next for poor Ben, a schmuck at heart. He drives his various children to school, briefly encounters ex-wives, pursues an elusive agent, and the tempestuous Willis – all the way to a funeral where many of the players come together. It’s an old literary-cum-film device, a wedding or a funeral to sum things up for a large cast. There are unexpected, comedic turns at the funeral, including a final unraveling of a plot mystery: Why does super Hollywood agent John L. McDonagh have a Jewish Orthodox funeral? It may be a small detail, again, but at least it’s one that is planted early and pays off later.

Based on Art Linson’s book, What Just Happened?: Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line, the movie is about the movie business, self-inflicted wounds, warts and all. It’s consistently funny, except for the dog footage, and it allows almost every actor to heighten his or her own game. Even De Niro, more and more a winning everyman, befuddled by life, is left behind at one point, in a blatant gesture of dismissal. At the end, he takes his rightful place in the picture of powerful men.

Mainstream critics complain that this Hollywood satire falls short of the late, great Robert Altman’s masterpiece, “The Player.” They also compare it unfavorably to Levinson’s own witty political expose, “Wag the Dog.” I disagree with that line of criticism – more male competition. This dark comedy has plenty to keep you tuned. What’s at issue is – male gamesmanship, status, and that’s always entertaining. •