Not all Hollywood tales are satire

critical eye movies

October 19, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

An agent so afraid of all his clients that his stomach rumbles like Vesuvius. A superstar hired for an action film who shows up looking bearded and burly, like Steve McQueen as Dr. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People. A cutting-edge director who banks his career on a bloody climax involving Sean Penn, three thugs and a dog. These elements of the terrific new comedy What Just Happened? have caused some reviewers to label it a satire and judge it by the standards of satire, weighing whether it's as stringent or cutting as it might be.

Yet as anyone knows who's read Art Linson's source book of the same name (or his previous book, A Pound of Flesh), these characters and plotlines are the stuff of Hollywood reality, not satire, parody or burlesque. Linson is known as an intelligent, classy producer; his credits include Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Untouchables. What he set out to do when he wrote the screenplay was flesh out the fellow in the middle of all these outlandish quandaries: the producer. In doing so, Linson offers a privileged glimpse into the Hollywood way of life that's also a reflection of the muddled way a lot of us live now.

Over the phone from Connecticut, the director, Barry Levinson, says he's pleased with audiences at Sundance, Cannes and points in between for accepting the movie for what it is and going with it. But he's puzzled by the way film columnists and critics will "write about, not the film, but the film they want it to be."

It may be that Hollywood "product" has sunk to such low levels that reviewers resist a movie that depicts industry players as normal human beings. "When Vincente Minnelli made The Bad and the Beautiful, people didn't automatically think, 'Oh, it's a satire of the business.' It's a story set against a Hollywood backdrop. Art's book was not a satire, but a record of his journey as a producer during certain projects and a certain time. And the script gives us characters who are trying to survive, as we all are in one way or another."

In some ways, Los Angeles and the film business make What Just Happened ? more accessible to audiences.

"Sometimes, it's more interesting to see people struggling who are different from ourselves. It can be too painful to watch a story about survival with people who are 'just like us.' It's better when it's happening to the other guy."

Our media culture has not yet detoxed from tales depicting studio bosses and agency chiefs as awe-inspiring power brokers, in the pages of Vanity Fair and even The New Yorker.

What Just Happened? is a heathy antidote. It expresses Levinson's belief that "No one has 'the power,' not even the studio heads." One of the most-quoted lines from Linson's book was that the producer, often regarded as the man in control on a production, isn't the meat in the sandwich. He's the mayonnaise.

Linson now favors a starker metaphor. "I've always felt that in Hollywood is like this huge glass pane with snails on it," he says. "Everyone - producers, directors, studio chiefs, actors - is scared of sliding down." Linson, on the phone from Paris, says he never thought of What Just Happened ? as a script until Robert DeNiro called him twice, first to tell him the book was "very, very funny," and a week later to say, "You should do this as a movie."

The suggestion startled Linson. He wrote the book to let readers know "what it was like to be in the middle of the stew" and become part of the messy succession of pitch meetings, story discussions, star negotiations and editing sessions that go into the production and release of a "major motion picture." Linson says that DeNiro, "in his own smartly intuitive way," was somehow reading in what Linson left implicit in his writing: that the book had a unifying character, expressed in "the voice of the guy in the middle of the mess." In other words, Linson himself - or as he's known in the movie (and played by DeNiro), "Ben."

Viewing his material fresh, from DeNiro's point of view, he saw it was about a guy who "is hanging on for dear life" but pretending to everyone around him "that he is still ticking like a Timex watch." Everything in Ben's life is "coming apart at the seams." He can't let go of his feelings for his second wife (Robin Wright Penn) and is incensed when he realizes that a screenwriter friend may be having an affair with her. But his cell phone is always beckoning him to leave his personal business and put out some professional fire, such as getting the director to cut his bloody climax, and compelling the star to work out and shave his beard.

Writing the script provided even more of an epiphany for Linson than writing his two books. "After I put all these stories in a comic-dramatic context and confined them to a two-week time period, what ran through my mind was: 'My God, do I really want to work in this town?' "

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