It was a shock to see Robert De Niro and Al Pacino do the Top 10 list on Letterman last month. Seated in clubby leather armchairs against a backdrop of books, like a couple of old coots presenting Masterpiece Theatre, they took turns rhyming off “The Top 10 Reasons I Like Being an Actor.” They were promoting Righteous Kill, a formula cop thriller that would come and go with barely a ripple. The bit was amusing enough. But it was as if they’d decided the only way to salvage some dignity from their latest paycheque movie was to submit to a self-deprecating send-up of themselves sliding into their dotage. (De Niro had the best line: “If you do a scene where you’re eating pudding, they often let you keep the pudding.”) It was all rather sad. Not so long ago, it was a huge deal to see these two titans of the method share a scene together for the first time, in Heat (1995). Now they’re reduced to talk-show shtick.
Last year in a GQ interview, director Francis Ford Coppola, who had worked with De Niro and Pacino in their prime on The Godfather movies, accused them, along with Jack Nicholson, of getting lazy and playing it safe. “They all live off the fat of the land,” he said. There’s a tradition of decadence and apathy among American acting legends, from Orson Welles to Marlon Brando. But despite frittering away his pedigree with dumb comedies like Meet the Fockers and Analyze That, De Niro has retained some of his mystique. That’s because, unlike Al and Jack, he’s not a natural ham bone. His default mode is stoical reserve, as if he’s put his talent away for safe-keeping. And he has a permanent air of world-weary resignation that suggests the good roles have deserted him rather than vice versa.
These days, with his Tribeca Film Center, De Niro is more of a producer and real-estate honcho who acts on the side. He seems to have lost his passion for it. But in his new movie, What Just Happened?, he gives his most appealing performance in some time, and that may be because he’s playing a frustrated producer. For once, De Niro is not squandering his pedigree so much as lamenting the state of a commercially driven industry that has made it irrelevant.
Directed by Barry Levinson, What Just Happened? is a showbiz satire scripted by veteran producer Art Linson, whose work includes The Untouchables, Fight Club, Into the Wild—and Heat. Basing it on his own book (subtitled Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line), Linson has conflated a Hollywood memoir into a fictional screenplay, casting De Niro as a workaholic producer named Ben who lives in terror of slipping off the A-list.
Ben has produced a thriller starring Sean Penn that ends with the leading man and his dog being shot dead. He’s up against the studio head (a crisp Catherine Keener), who vows to bury the movie unless the ending is softened, and a drug-addled Brit director who won’t compromise. Ben’s next movie is about to collapse because its impossible star, Bruce Willis, is sporting a massive beard that he refuses to shave off. Willis is such a nightmare that even his agent (a weaselly John Turturro) is scared to talk to him. Meanwhile, Ben is paranoid that his second ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn) is sleeping with his screenwriter (Stanley Tucci).
Admittedly, all this sounds pretty juicy. And some of the details are authentic. (While producing The Edge, Linson faced a crisis when Alec Baldwin didn’t want to shave off his beard.) But the satire lacks the bite of The Player. Fear and loathing in Hollywood is a fatigued genre, and here the exercise seems pointless. We have no reason to care about any of the characters because in the end there’s nothing at stake—except the fate of a movie and one man’s career. And in that sense, What Just Happened? is afflicted by the same showbiz pathology that it’s depicting.
The film-within-a-film is shown opening the Cannes film festival, which invited it only for the stars—a jibe that cut rather close to the bone when What Just Happened? premiered in Cannes as the closing night gala, after a lukewarm reception at Sundance. I’ll never forget seeing De Niro at the Cannes press conference, being besieged by a mob of journalists snapping pictures and begging for autographs. As he dutifully complied, one woman rudely jumped up and wrapped her arm around him for a photo. De Niro grimaced. It was like seeing his character from What Just Happened? brought to life, a soldier from the Hollywood front line trapped in the no man’s land of his own movie.