Barry Levinson's What Just Happened is an inside-Hollywood satire with a difference: The hero is, of all things, a producer and the movie has the temerity to be on his side. Robert De Niro stars as the scrambling big shot who has all the power yet, somehow, none of the control. His lavish new thriller, which is called Fiercely and stars Sean Penn, scored abysmally at a test screening, thanks to a climax in which a dog gets blown away. Can the British twit (Michael Wincott) who directed this twaddle be coerced, or even drugged, into recutting it? In a bigger (unrelated) headache, will Bruce Willis, who has grown a Paul Bunyan beard he refuses to shave (he wants to be loved for his talent), ditch those whiskers by week's end, when his new picture begins shooting?
Adapted by the producer Art Linson from his 2002 memoir, What Just Happened offers a thinly fictionalized version of a Hollywood that is running on corporate autopilot. Every artist here is just a baby throwing a tantrum; the crushing of ''creativity'' by commerce is something the movie takes blithely for granted. In this dog-eat-art universe, even a producer is reduced to the status of glorified errand boy. What Just Happened rambles a bit, but it has dryly obscene, laugh-out-loud lines, and its portrait of Hollywood as a giant anxiety attack is fused by De Niro, who musters a desperate, nagging warmth beneath his grumbly facade. B