We watched “What Just Happened,” an odd film starring Robert De Niro, who can’t be accused of never making interesting choices — “interesting” being a relative term.

This film was released in 2008 and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival that year. That was fair play inasmuch as the festival itself plays an important part in the movie. Although the title begins with an interrogative pronoun, it does not end with a question mark, which — as I tell my English students — mean that it is not a complete idea. The film is based on a novel which does have a question mark: “What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Takes from the Front Line” by Art Linson.


Linson has produced several films, including “Car Wash,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “The Untouchables,” and “The Black Dahlia,” and he purports to tell, in his novel, about some of his experiences while he was so employed.
In the movie, De Niro plays a producer, identified only as Ben, who has just completed filming a violent flick that stars Sean Penn. In the conclusion  of Ben’s movie, Penn’s character and the character’s dog are shot to death in a gratuitously violent scene. When the movie is screened, the studio head demands that at least the shooting of the dog be removed, and she threatens to either assign someone else to do the cutting or else pull the from the Cannes festival.
Ben takes this up with Jeremy Brunell, a renegade British director played by Michael Wincott, and Brunell blows his stack, insisting that he will not change his film. While this argument is under way, Ben, who is supporting two former wives and several children, runs into a problem on his next picture when Bruce Willis — like Penn, playing himself in this film — refuses to shave his beard for the part, a decision the studio won’t accept. In the midst of all this, Ben is also obsessed with the idea that  a screenwriter named Scott Solomon (Stanley Tucci) is having sex with Ben’s second wife.


All of these issues are resolved, so to speak, in manners bizarre enough to earn their places in this film.
Penn’s role is kind of innocuous, but it is interesting to see Willis portraying himself as an overblown jerk. It makes a body wonder.
This isn’t a movie to relax by. It’s full of frenetic shots and screamed profanity and violence both imagined and real. If one assumes that Linson is being at all truthful in describing the atmosphere in which movies are made, it is fun to watch this one while running in the back of one’s mind those vapid scenes on Oscar night when actors and directors and producers compliment each other on their shared “courage” and, hey, for “being there.”

Bruce Willis, Robert De Niro, and Stanley Tucci in a scene from "What Just Happened"