It may not be the most pointed, hilarious, or dramatic satire of the Hollywood film industry, but even if Barry Levinson and Art Linson's What Just Happened never really soars to the scathing heights of something like Swimming with Sharks, it nevertheless holds the unique distinction of being the first film where the two main dramas are 1) will a dog get shot in the head, and 2) will a man shave his beard. The story gets under way as harried producer Ben (Robert De Niro) prepares to take part in a Vanity Fair cover shoot featuring some of the most powerful producers in Hollywood. In the wake of a disastrous test screening for his latest film, "Fiercely," a violent crime drama starring Sean Penn, Ben attempts to convince drug-addicted director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) to remove a polarizing climactic shot in order to appease ruthless studio chief Lou Tarnow (Catherine Keener) and get the film screened at Cannes. Meanwhile, Ben's ex-wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), is sleeping with his longtime screenwriter friend Scott Solomon (Stanley Tucci), and the whole town is abuzz with news that a high-profile Hollywood agent has just committed suicide. As if that wasn't enough stress for Ben to contend with, he's got to convince a rampaging Bruce Willis to shave his shaggy beard before his latest project goes before the cameras, or risk seeing the project completely shut down by the producers and being sued for misrepresentation. Of course, this should be the job of Willis' new agent, Dick Bell (John Turturro), but Bell is far too terrified of his client to address the issue directly.
Much like the harried main character in the film, Linson's screenplay (based on his own book What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line) is always moving from one disaster to the next, rarely pausing to give viewers a chance to check their watch or sneak a peek at their cell phone. The resulting film is compellingly watchable and consistently entertaining, even if it does feel somewhat disingenuous, given the pedigree of talent involved. It's like a religious satire produced by the Catholic Church; it may be well versed in the rules of the game, but the simple fact that it was produced from within the system virtually ensures that it's going to be more a passable fluff piece than a burning critique of the status quo.
There's no denying the talent behind the film; unfortunately, almost everyone involved seems to know the system so well that they've neglected to inject their stereotypical caricatures with even a trace amount of personality. Perhaps that's all just part of the joke and no one in Hollywood really has a personality, but that's a hard message to convey without having the majority of your characters come off as uninteresting cardboard cutouts. While the situations may indeed be interesting, the screenplay doesn't really have anything to say about the folks who populate it. Turturro really throws himself into his role as the nebbish agent with a weak will and an even weaker stomach, and sure it's fun to watch Willis tear apart the wardrobe department during an epic ego trip, but the only characters who feel remotely human are the most minor ones -- namely Wright Penn as Ben's put-upon ex, and Kristen Stewart as his teenage daughter from another marriage. Faced with the thankless task of appearing terminally overclocked as he struggles just to keep his head above water, De Niro does manage to instill Ben with enough personality to make him a likable underdog who may possess just enough determination to break free from the riptide, even as he's being steadily pulled out into the open sea amongst the circling sharks.