Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Be Cool (2005)

Be Cool isn't as bad as people said when it came out (37% on Metacritic, 29% on Rotten Tomatoes), but it's not much better than people said either, and it's not even in the same league as its predecessor, 1995's Get Shorty. I'm a huge Get Shorty fan, but the widespread hatred of its sequel by both critics and audiences convinced me to stay away, and I never saw the film in theaters or on DVD. But hey — it was on cable television last night and I have DVR and no life.

John Travolta returns as shylock-turned-Hollywood-producer Chili Palmer, but Get Shorty writer Scott Frank and director Barry Sonnenfield are M.I.A. (they're replaced by Peter Steinfeld and F. Gary Gray, respectively). In the first film, Chili was an endearing hero; he was a criminal, for sure, but he had some very likable qualities. He was completely unintimidated by guns or threats of violence but he was totally starstruck by Hollywood and moviemaking; in a very memorable sequence he casually beats up his nemesis' stuntman/bodyguard (played by a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini) and then whispers incredulously as he walks away that he can't believe he just met a stuntman. By the time Be Cool begins, Chili is a jaded Hollywood vet, and the twinkle in his (and Travolta's) eye is gone. He's still hard to intimidate but without the innocence to counterbalance it, he just comes off as laconic to the point of not caring about anything. Travolta and a truly wretched hairpiece (which approximates his 'do from Get Shorty, only this one's shiner and doesn't move in a stiff wind) sleepwalk their way through a plot involving Chili's first foray into the music biz.

Get Shorty was fairly faithful to the original Elmore Leonard novel; Be Cool is significantly different than its source. That's not a bad thing in principle, but Gray and Steinfeld's changes are rarely for the better. Harvey Keitel's character, a record executive named Nick Carr, is beefed up into the main protagonist, but Keitel is completely out of his depth — his performance is so inauthentic it's hard to image Keitel had read the part, or listened to music, or learned exactly what a music exec does before the cameras rolled. Leonard's Raji was an angry black pimp; Gray and Steinfeld's is Vince Vaughn acting like a black stereotype, and the results are a lot less funny than they probably sounded on paper, although Vaughn does have a few genuinely funny moments with his gay bodyguard Eliott, played by The Rock in a performance that gleefully skewers his wrestling/action hero persona. In the novel, the character of Edie, the widow who Chili helps out, was a relatively minor role; here she's played by Uma Thurman and becomes Chili's key sidekick/love interest, mostly, I think, so Uma and Travolta can get back out on the dancefloor to recreate their far more memorable pairing in Pulp Fiction. The film's big heavies? Cedric the Entertainer and Andre 3000 from Outkast. Get Shorty was genuinely funny, but it had an air of menace as well. Dennis Farina was a legimate menace (or at least the character he played was, I'm sure Mr. Farina's a standup guy), and plenty of characters were brutalized or bumped off over the course of the picture. Cedric and Andre aren't scary, they're comic relief in a movie that's already a comedy. No stakes and a hero that doesn't seem to care about anything equals a pretty dull story.

Which is a shame, because individual moments in Be Cool do stand out. Vaughn and The Rock drop some gems ("Twinkle, twinkle baby"). The first scene, with James Woods and Travolta and a really good joke about f-bombs in movies, kills. And Steven Tyler is absolutely hilarious, albeit unintentionally, doing a terrible impression of himself, talking business with Chili and Edie at the Staples Center during a Lakers game (Kobe just chills out by the scorer's table for some camera time). Steven's memory even seems fuzzy -- when he thinks Chili wants him to be in a movie he demurs, "I'm not he kind of the musician that's had to do stuff like that he says," a cheeky joke, I guess, about the fact that he's doing it in Be Cool. I guess life on the road completely erased Wayne's World 2 from his memory. Maybe Steinman never saw it.

All in all, pretty meh, but man this is an awesome picture:

In an unrelated story: PITCHERS AND CATCHERS REPORT TODAY. The calendar says winter, but the gods of spring are out. I can't wait.

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