How did a Robert De Niro flop get chosen to close Cannes?

Inside the big picture show.
April 30 2008 6:29 PM

Analyze This

How did a Robert De Niro flop get chosen to close Cannes?

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Robert De Niro. Click image to expand.
Robert De Niro

Weird: We've never been to the Cannes Film Festival, which is our loss, no doubt. But luckily we've already seen this year's closing-night selection, What Just Happened?, which leads us to ask, what did just happen?

We saw the movie months ago, when it had a much-hyped premiere at Sundance. Robert Redford was there, and Robert De Niro turned up with producer Art Linson to introduce the film. In it, De Niro plays a fictionalized version of Linson—an embattled Hollywood player dealing with an out-of-control director and star (Bruce Willis puckishly playing himself) and winding up with a very bad movie.

Expectations were high that night. The film was directed by Barry Levinson and has a cast that includes Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci, John Turturro, and Sean Penn. But the film fell flat. After its glittering night at Sundance, it laid there like an overpriced egg—no distributor bought it from that day to this.

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So how does this failed venture turn up at Cannes? We asked a prominent producer who has nothing to do with the film to speculate.

"Who is the president of the jury this year?" he asked, as if to imply that we are not very smart. "Sean Penn." And Robert De Niro is a Cannes favorite. "So who promises to show up? Because it's always about movie stars. So Sean Penn shows up, Robert De Niro shows up. … It just seems so unlikely because the movie has been well-roasted. It was a bad move to take it to Sundance. It was considered at best an inside joke."

The most amusing bit in the movie, to us, is when De Niro-as-Linson stands in the shower, his no-longer-firm flesh exposed to the world as he desperately slathers dye on his hair. That scene would seem to show a wry awareness that an aging producer (not to mention an aging star) doesn't appear at his best when struggling to hold back the hands of time. And that it's quite a challenge, in our culture, to stay graceful after 50.

But the handling of this film seems like an exercise in how profoundly all of them—Linson, Levinson, De Niro—don't get that at all. It was an enormous act of ego to spend the estimated $30 million on this film, another one to take it to Sundance. And now, Cannes—which is funny because What Just Happened? ends with the Linson character taking his very bad film (where else?) to Cannes. Wag the Dog indeed.

All this reminded our producer friend of a memo, supposedly created by an anonymous CAA agent in the wake of De Niro's recent departure from the agency. This has been pinging around the Hollywood blogosphere for a couple of weeks now, but we pass it along in part:

Why did Bobby leave us?

They promised they could turn back time.

They promised they could get him 20m a picture.

They promised they could get a release for his "Something happened," a Barry Levinson show biz pic that's has no market, and Mark Cuban lost a fortune on.

They promised they could get him the $1m production fee on every picture he does, that he and his partner put their names on, and do nothing to earn.

They promised they could convince Hollywood that they should still pay that 1m vig on top of his acting fees.

They promised him they'd find a respectable release for the Pacino picture he did last summer, that basically stars two 65 year old guys as detectives—while the audience is under 35, and has no interest in seeing.

As I said, they promised him they could turn back time, and make him 50 again, and relevant, and hot, and interesting to today's moviegoing audience.

And they probably promised that they'd find a way to erase the memory of all of America about the number of god-awful paycheck films he did during the past ten years.

De Niro had a choice ten or so years ago. He could either go the Nicholson route—very selective, very particular, protect the brand—or go out sending himself up in tripe like Analyze This, which made money but turned him into that "old psycho guy."

And he could have concentrated on quality stuff, but instead wanted to keep funding his little empire in New York. …

Bobby blames everybody but himself for the way he's squandered his career, and refused lots of quality pictures because they wouldn't give him producer credit.

Good luck in the Hotel Business, pal. (link)

April 23, 2008