The Children Act

October 1, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Emma Thompson, Fionn Whitehead, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal”)
Written by: Ian McEwan (“On Chesil Beach”)

Films where characters are presented with a moral dilemma usually give rise to thought-provoking conversations. In the 2015 war thriller “Eye in the Sky,” the decency of the U.S. military is examined when they must decide if they should bomb a group of terrorists if it also means killing a young girl near the targeted site. In 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone,” the question posed at the end of the film is whether the wellbeing of a child should be risked in favor of a neglectful mother’s rights.

The complicated, life-altering situations continue in “The Children Act,” a polarizing and ultimately erratic drama starring two-time Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson (“Sense and Sensibility”) as an English judge assessing a controversial case. Although Thompson is a gem, “The Children Act” minimizes its most interesting courtroom narrative with insignificant storylines during the first half before transforming into an entirely different — and less absorbing — picture in the second.

Thompson stars as Fiona Maye, a High Court justice living in London with her American professor husband Jack (Stanley Tucci), who confesses to her that he has become dissatisfied with their passionless marriage. Besides placing added stress on Fiona, who is obviously a workaholic, the revelation doesn’t add much to the screenplay adapted by Ian McEwan (“On Chesil Beach”) from his own 2014 novel of the same name. Still, McEwan and director Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal”) milk the relationship problems for all they’re worth, which hurts the impact of the film’s main moral issue.

The case that comes across Fiona’s desk is of Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), a devout 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness and leukemia patient who sites his religious beliefs and refuses a life-saving blood transfusion. Despite having little time to weigh the circumstances fully (Adam will die soon without the procedure), Fiona makes an unprecedented move and chooses to meet Adam at the hospital before she makes a final ruling.

Until the encounter takes place, “The Children Act,” named after a law in the United Kingdom that requires the protection of a child’s welfare, is a well-developed and smart story in spite of the overplayed and hollow marital spat. Where the film comes apart is when we step out of the courtroom and into an awkward scenario where Fiona’s personal life collides with her work life in a way she’s never experienced before.

As the pragmatic Fiona, Thompson gives a brilliantly direct performance — one that will probably be overshadowed by showier characters once awards season starts getting serious — and stands out as one of her best since 2013’s “Saving Mr. Banks.” A major opportunity is missed, however, when the script chooses to take a clumsy route rather than a compelling one when it hits the homestretch.

Final Portrait

April 24, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Armie Hammer, Geoffrey Rush, Clémence Poésy
Directed by: Stanley Tucci (“Big Night”)
Written by: Stanley Tucci (“Big Night”)

While it’s usually never great to see “how the sausage is made” in most industries, there’s always been something intriguing — at least from a cinematic perspective — about peeking into the life of an artist and witnessing the inspiration, imagination and sometimes ugliness that permeates the creative process.

From the obsessed filmmaker Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) in Federico Fellini’s 1963 surreal Italian classic “8½” to last year’s neurotic dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s romantic, stylish and strange drama “Phantom Thread,” watching masters at work (or in pain from their inability to create) makes for some fascinating substance for character analysis.

It’s especially true when documentarians are able to identify a compelling subject whose passion for their craft knows no limits and details something as specialized as video-game design (“Indie Game: The Movie”) or method acting (“Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond”) or even preparing sushi (“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”). The subgenre is one that extends across countless disciplines – none as tempestuous as visual art.

Although the tortured artist is a cliché that is often overemphasized, a number of biopics and docs such as “Basquiat,” “Pollack,” “Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry” and “Gerhard Richter Painting,” have proven that each of these artists’ insight is worthy of a deep dive into learning what makes them tick. The same can’t be said, unfortunately, about “Final Portrait,” a shallow, British-American drama that offers no real substance behind the paper-thin narrative and characters presented by Oscar-nominated actor-turned-filmmaker Stanley Tucci (“The Lovely Bones”).

In his first foray into the director’s chair in more than a decade, Tucci explores the connection between Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) and American writer James Lord (Armie Hammer), who poses as a model inside Alberto’s Paris studio in 1964. “You’re my husband’s next victim,” Alberto’s wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) tells James on the first day he steps into the studio for what is supposed to be a three-hour sitting.

A few hours, however, drag on for nearly three weeks as Alberto, surrounded by dusty sculptures and picturesque albeit dreary production design, transforms into a self-doubting, hopeless curmudgeon who curses at his canvas as much as he actually puts paint on it and delivers empty dialogue like “It’s gone too far; same time, not far enough” when he makes a potential breakthrough. James is also introduced to Caroline (Clémence Poésy), a pretty prostitute Alberto considers his muse and “nighttime companion.”

Alberto is a frustrating character, which was probably Tucci’s desire from the get-go, but the repetition in his process, or lack thereof, which spins in a loop from self-deprecating to compulsive to selfish, also twists him into a fairly unlikeable human being. Rush plays it with compassion much like he did in his Oscar-winning role in 1996’s “Shine,” but it’s a move that would only be helpful to the story if Hammer’s portrayal of James balanced it in a way audiences could feel a real relationship was present or at least forming.

Sadly, Hammer is a blank slate — a wet napkin dressed in a blue blazer and tie, sitting on a rickety wicker chair watching Alberto dip his brush into gray paint. He’s an emotionally absent pushover, and none of it is very revealing or in the interest of either gentleman. In fact, around day 12, James, through some ineffective voiceover narration, says the time he has spent with Alberto has put a “psychological strain” on him. However, Tucci, who adapted the script from Lord’s memoir “A Giacometti Portrait,” never gives an indication that James is stressed about the situation he has found himself in. Instead of just telling audiences that the prolonged art project is driving him nuts, it would have been beneficial to see something expressed on James’ perfect face. In “Final Portrait,” Hammer adequately plays what is ultimately the equivalent of a bowl of fruit.

Aside from a couple of short, thought-provoking discussions between James and Alberto about suicide and artists stealing ideas from each other, not much is memorable during their studio time. What we’re left with is Alberto scowling at his work, threatening to abandon the portrait, smoking, yelling “fuck” a lot, burying his head in his hands in complete anguish and going for occasional walks.

At one point, Alberto declares that “portraits have no meaning,” to which James questions with, “So, what we’re doing is meaningless?” As a moviegoer watching “Final Portrait,” the theory also rings true.

Spotlight

November 20, 2015 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams
Directed by: Tom McCarthy (“The Visitor”)
Written by: Tom McCarthy (“The Visitor”) and Josh Singer (“The Fifth Estate”)

It might not have all the complexity of journalists tracking down a serial killer, like in the 2007 crime thriller “Zodiac,” or the melodrama needed to spur scribes into breaking open a story on the suspicious death of a congressman’s mistress, like in the 2009 political thriller “State of Play,” but the relevancy of a newspaper reporter’s job is made evident in the sincere, insightful, fair and extremely well-paced “Spotlight.”

In a news industry where Buzzfeed headlines and Kardashian selfies are constantly trending for the mainstream masses, it’s refreshing (and equally discouraging) to know a majority of wordsmiths just a decade ago cared more about reporting the truth than creating click-bait content. Not only is “Spotlight” great cinema, it also has the power to remind audiences that a hard-hitting exposé should always be a crucial element of the ever-changing media landscape. Without professionals doing this kind of work (and not just recording grainy cell phone footage), how can anyone be held accountable?

Directed and co-written by Oscar nominee Tom McCarthy, whose track record has been so impressive (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and “Win Win”) since breaking out in 2003 that we might one day forgive him for whatever the hell last year’s Adam Sandler vehicle “The Cobbler” was supposed to be. Spotlight brings the filmmaker back to true form. Set in the early ’00s, the drama tells the story of the Boston Globe‘s investigative “Spotlight Team” of reporters who uncovered a global sex abuse scandal and cover-up rooted deep inside the Catholic Church that ultimately spawned criminal accusations against 250 Roman Catholic priests. For their work, the team was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for public service.

That journalistic determination leading them to the source of the crimes is the main focus of “Spotlight.” While the stories of the individual victims and perpetrators is paramount in breathing life into the story, it’s the Globe’s writers’ efforts to deliver these remarkable revelations that serve as the lungs of this compelling narrative. Oscar-nominated actors Michael Keaton (“Birdman”) and Mark Ruffalo (“Foxcatcher”) lead this impressive ensemble cast, including Rachel McAdams (“Southpaw”) and Liev Schreiber (“Pawn Sacrifice”) as the Globe‘s new earnest editor who wants the paper to concentrate more on local coverage. What they find at the core is a corrupt system where the crimes of Catholic priests had been swept under the rug for years.

Where McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer (“The Fifth Estate”) shined most with the screenplay is in the fact they did not sensationalize the subject at hand, respected everyone involved and stayed fiercely objective (even the Vatican’s official radio station called the film “honest”). In doing so, “Spotlight” is also able to point out the faults of its hero reporters and show that despite the immense accountability they inherit when they choose to take on an assignment like this, they are still flawed human beings that make mistakes. Nevertheless, this isn’t a film about the people, per se, as much as it is about the procedure. “Spotlight” takes the research, analysis, interviews, red tape, dead ends and backroom politics of investigative journalism and turns it into an art form.

The Company You Keep

April 26, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie
Directed by: Robert Redford (“The Conspirator”)
Written by: Lem Dobbs (“Haywire”)

It might flaunt the most impressive cast top to bottom you’re likely to see this year on the big screen (21 Oscar nominations, 4 wins), but the script behind Oscar-winning director Robert Redford’s political thriller “The Company You Keep” can only lead its actors just far enough before they’re let down by the material.

It really is unfortunate since Redford, who earned an Academy Award for directing in 1981 for “Ordinary People,” comes into the project with a lot of the pieces already in place. This should be a more intriguing look into the radical leftist organization known as the Weather Underground in the late 60s and early 70s, but it falters. The revolutionary group, whose members were charged during that time for bombing a number of sites such as the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon, were hell-bent on overthrowing the U.S. government.

In “Company,” Redford stars as Jim Grant, a New York City lawyer and former activist of the Weathermen, who has been living as a fugitive for the last 30 years after a bank heist he is involved in during his heyday claims the life of a guard. Jim is flushed from his quiet suburban home when one of his former Weather Underground colleagues Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is finally found and arrested for her involvement in the radical movement. Her arrest triggers a domino effect that leads to Jim’s participation in the crime. Now on the run with the FBI and media (Shia LaBeouf plays a scrappy newspaper reporter who cracks the case) on his trail, Jim hits the road in search of a way to clear his name.

Based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gordon, “Company” is a sort of slowly-paced road-trip movie where tons of characters join the fracas, but none are very important to the overall narrative. It’s great to see the likes of heavy-hitters like Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte and Stanley Tucci tag in and out like some kind of all-star contest, but the substance behind each of their individual connections to the story is thinly scripted.

The acting makes up slightly for the film’s lack of tension. We’re not looking for car chases and extensive getaway scenes here, but Redford’s inability to draw out more emotional conflict from the script is its greatest letdown. There just aren’t enough big moments the talent can sink their claws into. “Company” is never boring, but it also never shifts out of first gear, which poses a major problem when you have a fugitive on the run and a lot at stake.

Jack the Giant Slayer

March 3, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Elanor Tomlinson, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Bryan Singer (“X-Men”)
Written by: Darren Lemke (“Shrek Forever After”), Christopher McQuarrie (“Jack Reacher”) and Dan Studney (debut)

Based on the fairy tales “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer” comes a fantasy movie from former (and future…future past?) “X-Men” director Bryan Singer. In “Jack the Giant Killer,” farmhand Jack (Nicholas Hoult) decides he must climb up a giant beanstalk in order to save Isabelle, (Elanor Tomlinson) a princess who has been kidnapped and is trapped at the top. When Jack and the team of the King’s men reach the top of the beanstalk, a group of newly awakened giants await.

Though the acting in the film isn’t bad, it is certainly nothing to write home about either. For better or worse, everyone in the film plays everything relatively straight, so you get actual effortful performances from acting veterans like Ewan McGregor and Ian McShane. The same goes for the performances from Hoult and Tomlinson as Jack and Isabelle. While neither of them are particularly good, they are adequate enough to where they aren’t trite or cheesy.

One of the things that “Jack the Giant Slayer” struggles with is finding a consistent tone. At times it seems as if the PG-13- rated film is going for a serious, adventurous tone while other times Singer takes full advantage of gross out and flatulence humor that would appeal to younger kids. Regardless of tone, the script is also a problem with lame jokes and a tendency of extended lulls in action.

“Jack the Giant Slayer” trudges through most of the first half of the film as the entertainment levels wax and wane. The final act of the film is a CGI-heavy battle sequence that finally ramps up the action and adventure levels. The effects behind the actual CGI  giants are pretty good, but the noisy finish can’t quite make up for the film’s overall mediocrity.

It’s a little surprising that Warner Bros sunk $200 million into a CGI-heavy fairytale adaption with no stars in its leading roles. What makes the situation even more perplexing is spending that much on a film without a distinct tone, a strong story, a worthy script or built in audience. Too serious and dull in parts for small kids, and too juvenile and monotonous in others for older kids, tweener tone in “Giant Slayer” misses the mark on all intended audiences and will likely prove to be massive waste of cash for a studio that is struggling to find a hit in 2013.

The Hunger Games

March 23, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

The Hunger Games
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson
Directed by: Gary Ross (“Sea Biscuit”)
Written by: Gary Ross (“Sea Biscuit”), Suzanne Collins (debut), Billy Ray (“State of Play”)

There are a few things inherently lacking in director/co-writer Gary Ross’ highly-anticipated film adaptation of “The Hunger Games” that should be puzzling to anyone who is familiar with the history of the sci-fi genre and even the more complex ideas behind dystopian literature and how it carries into the social context of today.

Thematically, the film, which is based on the popular young adult series by Suzanne Collins, doesn’t have a single original thought in its flimsy framework. It’s bothersome because young fans of the series won’t care how similar it is to films of the past. Audiences just want something to replace the hole that will soon be left by “The Twilight Saga.” It is fortunate “The Hunger Games” doesn’t stoop to a level like Stephenie Meyer, but it still makes it hard to appreciate Collins’ concepts when she does nothing to separate herself from the pack.

Set in the future, “The Hunger Games” takes about an hour of the first act to explain the mythology behind the title competition. Two kids or teenagers from 12 different districts are chosen through a lottery system to compete in an all-out fight to the death on national TV where only one of them will survive. Representing District 12 is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss enters the competition after her younger sister Primrose’s name is chosen and she volunteers to take her place.

Whisked off to the Capitol (a sort of Emerald City on acid), Katniss and Peeta are pampered like royalty and assigned a mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former Hunger Games champion who is now a drunk, to teach them the ins and outs of a competition that will leave at least one of them dead.

Borrowing generously from the text of writers like Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”), Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”), and Richard Connell (“The Most Dangerous Game”), “The Hunger Games” will definitely attract its fan base who have been itching to see the film come to life on the big screen. While its easily-accessible plot and characters also might generate some new interest from others not familiar with the books, the movie has no real ambition. More importantly, it fails to build any type of emotional structure around its characters besides Katniss herself. As kids get picked off one by one in the battle royale (look it up, kids: Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film “Battle Royale”), it’s about as affecting as watching pawns get removed from a chess board.

Take away the fact that “The Hunger Games” is a 142-minute rehash, and we’re left with a perfectly-cast Lawrence in the lead role who makes up for a lot of the film’s problem areas. As Katniss, Lawrence, nominated for an Oscar for the fantastic 2010 drama “Winter’s Bone,” is a strong female protagonist that puts someone like the always-suffering Bella Swan of “The Twilight Saga” to shame. Lawrence is the reason to hope the inevitable sequels to this franchise can break away just a little more from Collins’ original text and at least give it a style that doesn’t feel so synthetic at times.

Easy A

September 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Emma Stone, Amanda Bynes, Alyson Michalka
Directed by: Will Gluck (“Fired Up!”)
Written by: Burt V. Royal (debut)

High school hierarchy is given a literary twist in “Easy A,” a teenage sex comedy that confuses clever dialogue with something better suited for the Diablo Cody school of excessive quick-wittedness. If you thought “Juno” was a bit too cheeky at times, there is no comparison to the number of silver-tongued characters brazenly stealing the spotlight from one another here.

Loosely inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mid-19th century masterpiece “The Scarlet Letter,” director Will Gluck (“Fired Up!”) transports the story from a small village in Boston to the halls of a gossipy high school where we meet our leading lady Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) doing everything she can to sully her goody-goody reputation.

It starts when Olive, under the duress of her nosey best friend Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka), is overheard lying about losing her virginity, a speck of information that quickly finds its way across campus through phone texts and good old-fashion whispering between classes.

Not very concerned with her newfound promiscuous status, Olive is actually surprised about how much attention she’s receiving for telling one little white lie. However, Olive spreads herself thin when her knack to stretch the truth without worrying about the consequences leads her to do charity work for some of the more unpopular boys of the school whose lives could quickly change for the better if Olive agrees to let people think she’s sleeping with them. In exchange, she’s paid with store gift cards to places like Office Max and Home Depot.

In a role too similar to Mandy Moore’s religious she-devil in 2004’s “Saved!,” Amanda Bynes plays Marianne, a Bible-thumping student who wants to save Olive’s soul before she ends up in hell with all the other floozies. The adults in Olive’s life include her hip parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) whose casual nature with their daughter works well for a generation that refers to their mom and dad by their first names. As married high school teachers, Lisa Kudrow and Thomas Hayden Church drag the plot into awkward territory.

If anything great comes out of “Easy A” it is the overall likeability of star Emma Stone. Regulated to more secondary roles in past movies like “Zombieland, “Superbad,” and “The House Bunny,” Stone proves she can carry a movie all on her own especially during the scenes where she video blogs to her online audience. Sure, she doesn’t have much help from co-stars this time around, but there’s something striking about Stone aside from her attractiveness. Look for her to scoop up all of the roles Lindsey Lohan would have earned if she wasn’t too busy passing out in her own vomit.

Despite Stone’s very enjoyable performance, “Easy A” is still all snap and no substance. First-time screenwriter Burt V. Royal was probably patting himself on the back as he churned out page after page of this script. On occasion it’s sharp. Most of the time it bludgeons us for the sake of a few one liners.

The Lovely Bones

January 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Peter Jackson (“King Kong”)
Written by: Peter Jackson (“King Kong”), Fran Walsh (“King Kong”) and Philippa Boyens (“King Kong”)

Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) tries his hardest to switch gears after nine years of big-budget epics and tell a more sentimental story with “The Lovely Bones.” Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Alice Sebold, Jackson strikes quickly with an intriguing first act before any real emotional intimacy is washed away by delusions of grandeur.

In “The Lovely Bones,” actress Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) plays Susie Salmon, a sweet and intelligent 14-year-old girl with her whole life ahead of her. Not only is Susie an aspiring photographer, first love may also be on the horizon.

But when walking home from school one day, Susie’s life is brutally taken at the hands of George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a reclusive and odd neighbor who lives down the road from the Salmon home. Once murdered, Susie’s soul travels into a state of limbo and settles there even long after the horrific crime.

While in the “in-between,” as her little brother so nonchalantly identifies her place in the universe, Susie watches her family including mother (Rachel Weisz) and father (Mark Wahlberg) struggle with the loss of a child. She also watches Mr. Harvey as he goes on with each day trying to confine the killer instincts inside him. As months pass, Susie continues to look over them all from her visually-stunning playground, which is reminiscent of the Oscar-winning special effects of 1998’s “What Dreams May Come.”

Despite the majestic imagery poured on by Jackson during these scenes, “The Lovely Bones” is showier than it needs to be and pulls some much-needed attention from what should have been a more heartfelt narrative. Instead, the film ends up becoming something as pretty and flat as a watercolor painting.

Because of Jackson’s inability to understand more than what a graphic artist can render on a computer, the characters in “The Lovely Bones” suffer greatly. Wahlberg and Weisz are not left with much to build on besides the tragedy itself. There comes a point in the film where this terrible murder feels becomes insignificant to the story. This is because Jackson and the rest of his writing team refuse to let the audience into anyone’s head. Lingering shots of the family starring peculiarly at the home of Mr. Harvey don’t cut it.

With chaotic variations in tone throughout “The Lovely Bones,” Jackson misses an opportunity to show a more delicate side to his visionary talent. It’s disappointing that he couldn’t quite let go of his bulkier ideas to stay on the task at hand.

Julie & Julia

August 6, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”)
Written by: Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”)

Whether you’re a glutton or a light eater, it would be difficult not to enjoy what director Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”) serves up in her double-biopic “Julia & Julia.” The film, which stars two-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep and two-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams, is as tasty as a French Quiche Lorraine. Who says real men don’t eat it?

In half of the film, Streep plays American chef and French cuisine mastermind Julia Child before she actually knew how to even make an omelet. We watch Streep embody Child while living in Paris in the 40s and 50s and trying to find something to do to keep her busy while her husband (Stanley Tucci) attends to his work as a foreign diplomat.

With a love of French food, Child decides to take French cooking lessons at the culinary arts school Le Cordon Bleu after hobbies like hat making and playing bridge don’t fulfill her needs. There she finds the joy of cooking and proves to her all-male class that a woman has just as much right to run a professional kitchen as a man.
 
Working in harmony with Child’s biography is the story of Julie Powell (Adams), an insurance claims representative who wants more out of life than her monotonous nine to five job. A fan of Child, she, too, has a fascination for food, but doesn’t realize what a fantastic cook she actually is until she challenges herself to a “deranged assignment.”

The goal: to cook all 524 recipes in Child’s first book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which we also see Child undertake in her portion of the film. Not only will Julie cook boeuf bourguignon and bouillabaisse, she will also update an online blog about her experiences while performing such a demanding feat.

While Julia’s story is much more enjoyable to the cinematic pallet than her counterpart Julie’s sometimes irritable journey, the parallels between these women’s lives are sincere offerings from Ephron. Streep once again proves why she is arguably the best actress of her generation, while Adams’ starry-eyed disposition makes her a perfect choice for Julie. If you can get past her meltdowns and focus on the melting butter in a saucepan instead, “Julie & Julia” is as delicate and satisfying as the caramelized sugar covering of a crème brulee.

What Just Happened?

October 30, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Barry Levinson (“Man of the Year”)
Written by: Art Linson (debut)

When actors play themselves in movies, it can either go very well (John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich”) or seem too gimmicky (Julia Roberts as someone who looks like Julia Roberts in “Ocean’s 12”). It really depends on how the screenwriter decides to weave them into the story.

While most of these occurrences are edited down to quick and witty cameos (Tom Cruise playing himself playing Austin Powers in “The Spy Who Shagged Me” or Billy Idol playing himself in “The Wedding Singer”), “What Just Happens” decides to make it one of the cornerstones of its script, which falls flat after your realize screenwriter Art Linson is going to milk it as much as possible.

In all honesty, “What Just Happened” is a movie about a grizzly beard. The man behind the beard: Bruce Willis (played by Bruce Willis), who refuses to shave it before the production of his newest film much to the chagrin of Ben (Robert De Niro), the film’s producer.

Willis’ facial hair is only one of the many problems Ben has on his plate as a hard-working Hollywood producer. He also has his studio chief Lou (Catherine Keener) breathing down his neck after a test audience reacts negatively to Sean Penn’s new film, “Fiercely,” which needs to be re-edited for the Cannes Film Festival. Apparently, people don’t like when movies end with a beloved animal being gunned down point blank and left to twitch and die.

While “What Just Happened” plays on the absurdity of Hollywood and the cutthroats who live and work there, De Niro’s Ben never really expands any of these ideas to more than a few shouting matches and sessions with his shrink. Everyone is supposed to represent professionals in the industry, but Linson and director Barry Levinson deliver some surprisingly amateurish scenes. What’s happened to Levinson anyway? Since winning an Oscar for “Rain Man” and giving us gems like “The Natural” and “Good Morning Vietnam” in the 80s, he’s hit rock bottom with shockingly bad movies like “Envy,” “Bandits,” and “Man of the Year.” His last memorable film was “Wag the Dog” and that was 11 years ago.

There might be no business like show business, but in “What Just Happened” there’s nothing really interesting about what goes on behind the scenes of Hollywood’s most powerful players. It’s a cynical little piece that’s all talk and no action.