Sean Penn's Other, Non-Oscar-Winning Role

If you watched the Oscars last Sunday, Sean Penn seemed pretty reasonable, friendly, and modest in accepting his Best Actor award for the acclaimed Milk (which continues in these local theaters). I had my money on Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, like a lot of people, but I have to agree that on pure thespian merit, where amazing acting chops eclipse life-into-art casting, Penn probably deserved it more. Just after the Oscars, however, a new DVD landed on my desk that reminded me of Penn's place in the whole sour Hollywood stew....

Penn stars in the movie-within-the-movie contained in What Just Happened, a Hollywood satire that comes loaded with A-list talent. The movie opened here in October of last year, and the reviews weren't kind. Nobody blamed Penn, of course, since he was merely playing himself in a few cameo scenes. Otherwise, he's the star of the awful indie film being produced by our harried hero (Robert De Niro), a Hollywood player in midlife crisis mode, estranged from his wire (Robin Wright Penn) and fearing he's getting too old for the showbiz rat race. (Basically, we see Penn on the monitor as the fake movie's final scene is cut and recut after its disastrous Cannes premiere.)

The actual movie is directed, but not written, by Oscar winner Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man). De Niro's industry credentials we know. And there are several more Oscar nominations scattered among supporting players Wright Penn, Catherine Keener, John Turturro, and Bruce Willis (who plays himself to very amusing effect).


(Pictured L-R: De Niro, Levinson, Linson)

But the script, which never reaches outright satire or comedy, is written by a movie producer, Art Linson, based on his 2002 book of industry anecdotes. That book carried the subtitle "Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line." And how about this jacket blurb from Sean Penn: "Art Linson sings of Hollywood in a low, guttural, animal wail, alternately hysterical, biting, humiliating, and wise."

That's stretching it a bit. But What Just Happened makes for good home viewing, since it's essentially a Hollywood dramedy/soap opera, like Entourage without the youth, sex, and laughs. It's like a pilot for a series that never got made. Linson (meaning De Niro) projects a kind of baby boomer panic that his moment is over, that the industry has passed him by, that spoiled stars (Penn, Willis) now have all the power. Among his class of behind-the-camera professionals, everyone's comfortably wealthy, but on their second or third marriage. It's hard to feel sympathetic for someone who complains about owing $30,000 in monthly alimony, or whose telling industry slights are finding no room on the studio G5 and being pushed out of frame for a Vanity Fair cover shoot. Especially now, these are the problems of the rich, which don't resonate too well among us moviegoers attending bargain matinees and discount shows at the Crest.

I often complain that, after Sunset Boulevard and The Player, we don't need to see any more attempted Hollywood satires. Like most films that try, What Just Happened is too much inside baseball. But it's not self-pitying or bitter. There's more a sense of weary disgust and resignation. De Niro strips down to his boxers for a sex scene that never quite happens, and the lack of vanity is telling. (Willis, too, sports an impressive gut--unless it's prosthetic.) Linson ruefully admits that Hollywood clout is, to an extent, a dick-swinging contest. And every player, past a certain age, eventually loses his mojo.

And, BTW, Milk arrives on DVD March 10.

What Just Happened (Magnolia Home Ent., $29.98). On DVD Tues. Feb. 24.

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