Can 'What Just Happened' put Oscar champs Robert De Niro and Barry Levinson back in the derby?
The trailer for "What Just Happened" — the latest satire of life in Hollywood — has hit the Net in anticipation of the film's Oct. 3 release. The seemingly ubiquitous Robert De Niro stars in Art Linson's adaptation of his memoir chronicling the ups and downs of his producing career. While the real-life Linson is coming off the success of "Into the Wild," his celluloid self is suffering personally and professionally, dealing with the breakup of his marriage to his trophy wife (Robin Wright) while massaging the ego of Bruce Willis, playing (one hopes) an exaggerated version of himself. (Is that redundant?)
The film is helmed by Barry Levinson, the Oscar-winning director of 1988 best picture winner "Rain Man." Levinson — who also has three original screenplays noms ("... And Justice For All," 1979; "Diner," 1982; and "Avalon," 1990) as well as 1991 directing and producing nods for "Bugsy" — has seen his career wane in recent years. His last film, the 2006 political satire "Man of the Year" with Robin Williams as an accidental president, flopped with both critics (scoring only 20 at RottenTomatoes.com, 30 with top reviewers) and audiences (grossing just $37 million).
Robert De Niro, a two-time Oscar winner, picked up the last of his half-dozen nods in 1991 for "Cape Fear." While he produced and co-starred in "Wag the Dog," Levinson's 1997 satire of both Hollywood and Washington, it was Dustin Hoffman who got an Oscar nom then for his playful take on legendary studio exec Robert Evans. That film also found favor with the Golden Globes, with nods for best picture (musical/comedy) as well as for Hoffman and the screenplay.
Skewering Hollywood has proven to be surefire awards fodder for more than seven decades, at least in terms of nabbing nominations. The original "A Star Is Born" earned seven Oscar nods in 1937 including a best picture bid, but won only for its screenplay. (The 1954 musical remake reaped six nods but no wins.)
In 1950, Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" won three of its 11 Oscar nods (screenplay, art direction and score) and went four for seven at the Golden Globes (best drama picture, best drama actress for Gloria Swanson, best director, and best score). In 1976, Paddy Chayefsky's savage satire on television, "Network," took four of its 10 Oscar nominations with three acting prizes for Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight as well as a win for screenplay and won four of its five Golden Globe nods.
In 1988, James L. Brooks poked fun of TV in "Broadcast News" but this lighter touch went zero for seven at the Oscars and zero for five at the Globes. And in 1992, Robert Altman's "The Player" won two of its four Golden Globe nods including best picture (musical/comedy) though it lost all three of its Oscar bids.
Writing about this new film in his wrap-up column from the Cannes filmfest, Envelope contributor Pete Hammond said: "In the end, it was entirely appropriate that 'What Just Happened' got the last flicker of light from the projector at this year's Festival de Cannes. It's about a troubled movie, starring Sean Penn, that plays to a rainy Cannes within a real-life troubled movie that closes a rainy Cannes. This in a year when the fake film's star (Penn) served as president of the official selection jury, and the real film's star, Robert DeNiro, presented the Palme d'Or -- all during the wettest Cannes in years. It's art imitating life imitating art and so on."
"For the film, which was recut after failing to sell at Sundance (in retrospect a big mistake taking it to the wrong festival in the first place), it was a re-premiere on the closing night in Cannes, and its several-minute standing ovation must have been sweet for the filmmakers, director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Art Linson, who based the film on his own autobiographical book of life in the producing trenches. Even though movies about Hollywood are often considered too inside for mainstream success, this one has lots of knowing laughs and some terrific performances, including De Niro in the Linson-like role and especially Canadian actor Michael Wincott as a tantrum-throwing auteurist director. Should this film find decent distribution and a release before the end of the year, Wincott's performance is the kind of comic gem that could draw awards attention on its own."
(Photos: Magnolia Pictures, Paramount)