Based on the hilarious bestselling memoirs of Hollywood producer Art Linson comes WHAT JUST HAPPENED? A comedy that is sure to send a shudder up the spine of Tinseltown as it describes the true-life trials and tribulations of a fading Hollywood producer. Robert De Niro will star in the film alongside Sean Penn and Robin Wright Penn. Bruce Willis will play himself. What Just Happened? will play like a film version of the hit series Entourage with a real insiders’ view of Hollywood in all its ridiculous glory and power salads. Directed by Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam).

2.5
A light-touch satire that lets Hollywood off the hook.

Was 1950 really the last time that Hollywood, the former orange groves outside Los Angeles that became a state of mind, passed serious judgment on itself? That was the year Nicholas Ray made In A Lonely Place, where Humphrey Bogart’s Dixon Steele slow-burned with self-lacerating anger as a torpid screenwriter, and Billy Wilder let ghosts of various kinds have their say in Sunset Blvd: 'I need $300!" demands William Holden’s Joe Gillis, having cornered his agent. 'Sweetheart, maybe what you need is another agent," comes the sweetly dismissive reply.

There’s been many movies made about Hollywood since, but few have had the bite of those two titles. Increasingly the Hollywood movie is all about faux insight, with the kind of mildly biting satire that allows audiences to be conned into believing they’re seeing something real. Robert Altman’s The Player did it in a dryly witty way, but increasingly they’ve become predictable, lightweight exercises. Actors are narcissists, agents are inveterate liars and directors are aloof dictators – take your pick from Bewitched, Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, America’s Sweethearts and dozens of other titles for proof.

At least Barry Levinson’s What Just Happened – where Robert De Niro plays a Hollywood producer scrambling to stay in the various games that define his life – comes with a genuine pedigree. The book is one of several noir-inflected memoirs by veteran producer Art Linson, a scrapper who has a sturdy CV: Michael Mann’s Heat, Brian De Palma’s Untouchables, and David Fincher’s Fight Club are just a few credits.

The problem is that Linson, in adapting his book for Levinson, has sacrificed insight for simplified plotting. The book suggested that problems were never ending, professional oblivion always a step away, even when things were going fine; success was luck, failure ordained. Now it’s shaped like a thriller, with Linson-esque producer Ben (De Niro) having a fortnight to turn around a non-commercial cut of a Sean Penn thriller directed by a manic English filmmaker before it screens at Cannes.

At the same time, pre-production on a new Bruce Willis film is stalled because the star won’t shave his beard and no-one’s willing to tell him to. Willis has a lot of fun sending himself up, but it’s never more than a menacing gag. In the book it’s actually Alec Baldwin who won’t shave, prior to shooting The Edge with Anthony Hopkins and Bart the Bear in 1996. Like Willis, Baldwin eventually gives in, but he didn’t make a joke out of it. Baldwin barely looked at director Lee Tamahori after the issue was settled, a situation that didn’t help the making of what proved to be a very expensive, very average, motion picture.

It’s a shame the picture didn’t aim higher, because it has Robert De Niro, looking genuinely light on his feet, in one of his more interesting roles. Ben is a perpetual talker and reader of odds, a throwback to the Levinson leading men of old, and it sparks something in De Niro. Ben literally works the town, visiting his ex-wives (each has a better home than him) and ferrying various children around to maintain his profile. But Levinson can’t make something more out of that and interesting plot points, such as Ben’s daughter Zoe (Kristen Stewart) admitting an involvement with an acquaintance of his, are pushed aside in favour of rote editing techniques that are meant to show how perpetually busy and dislocated contemporary Los Angeles is.

What Just Happened could have done with a good rewrite from either Dixon Steele or Joe Gillis.