Little about What Just Happened?, Art Linson's brief, episodic memoir about trying to survive in the mine-filled trenches of Hollywood, screams "movie!" But at least one element of his book hearkens back to Diner, Barry Levinson's wonderfully talky directorial debut about guys kibitzing, coming of age, and enjoying a nosh in Baltimore. The book's framing device has Linson telling his blackly comic Hollywood anecdotes to a former studio executive over dinner, to make him feel better about getting booted out of the industry. So it's a little perverse that in taking Happened to the big screen, Levinson removed that framing device, instead focusing on the Linson character's attempts to stave off a midlife crisis and/or nervous breakdown while juggling family and career.
Longtime Linson pal/collaborator Robert De Niro stars as Linson's surrogate, a producer struggling to maintain his place in the ever-shifting Hollywood hierarchy following a string of flops. While De Niro struggles to win back estranged wife Robin Wright Penn, he's forced to put out fires on two of his troubled productions. In a subplot partially based on Linson's experiences working on Fight Club, De Niro must convince hotheaded auteur Michael Wincott to edit out the audience-alienating murder of a dog in a moody, big-budget thriller, while at the same time trying to convince overweight, heavily bearded Bruce Willis—playing a savage, almost feral parody of both himself and the book's sullen, hairy, paunchy Alec Baldwin—to shave off his facial hair for a role.
De Niro's family troubles prove an unedifying addition, in spite of another fine performance from Wright Penn—De Niro is more of a reactor than an actor, more a straight man than a forceful protagonist. Thankfully, a plethora of juicy supporting performances give him plenty to play off of. John Turturro is a hoot as a bow-tied agent terrified of the world in general and his clients in particular, Catherine Keener exudes icy authority as a tough-as-nails executive, and Willis has tremendous fun playing himself as an out-of-control egomaniac. Happened deviates greatly from Linson's winning little book in its particulars, but retains its sustained melancholy mood of low-key existential dread and dyspeptic wit. In Happened, solving silly little problems involving beards and dogs is all part of the grand gestalt of making entertainment, and sometimes even art.