For years, the common wisdom was that Elmore Leonard’s novels could not be successfully translated to the big screen — until screenwriter Scott Frank came along. First with Get Shorty, then with the even better Out Of Sight, Frank masterfully balanced Leonard’s punchy dialogue against a tight narrative backbeat. Helmed by a pair of savvy directors (Barry Sonnenfeld and Steven Soderbergh respectively), the films were sharp, funny and highly entertaining. They had an infectious groove and featured terrific casts. Now, 10 years later, we have Be Cool, the Get Shorty sequel no one asked for. Flat, chaotic and sporting none of the snap, crackle and pop of the first installment, this drab adaptation of Leonard’s failed follow-up feels dated even though it’s just been released. Mob shylock turned movie producer, Chili Palmer (a bored John Travolta) turns his attention to the music industry when his record-mogul buddy Tommy Athens (James Woods) gets popped by the Russian mob. Teaming up with his friend’s now-widowed wife, Edie (Uma Thurman), Chili decides to manage a Beyoncé-wannabe named Linda Moon (Christina Milian). Unfortunately, Linda is under contract with thuggish Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) and his overblown partner, Raji (Vince Vaughn). Since this is Elmore Leonard, however, the cast of oddball characters doesn’t stop there. Cedric The Entertainer plays a rival hip-hop producer with dubious “street cred” and Andre 3000 is Dabu, an ineptly violent rapper. Add in The Rock as a flamboyantly gay bodyguard and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and you’ve got the makings of a hip, irreverent comedy, right? Hardly.
The startling thing about Be Cool is just how uncool it is. Director F. Gary Gary (The Italian Job, Friday) lacks the deft comedic touch required to navigate his large cast through the twists and turns of the story. His pacing is sluggish and awkward, missing any sense of rhythm or energy. Screenwriter Peter Steinfeld (Analyze That) strains to create an intricate loop of unlikely plot twists but instead delivers a lifeless and muddled script that boasts underdeveloped characters, forced humor and story ideas that play like discarded table scraps from the first movie. Travolta, Thurman and the other veteran actors seem to understand that they’ve got a turkey on their hands and turn in disinterested, paint-by-numbers performances. The late Robert Pastorelli shines briefly as a high-strung assassin and Vaughn has some amusing moments as a nitwit manager who channels his inner pimp-daddy, but it’s The Rock who ultimately steals the show. With a charming, open-faced sincerity, he plays fame-seeking queer Elliot as foolishly funny without becoming a caricature of homosexuality. In his best moment, he auditions with a scene from the Kirsten Dunst film Bring It On … complete with neck sways and head snaps. It’s a ridiculous, outlandish role and yet Elliot is the most human character in the picture. Get Shorty succeeded as a satire because it waded into the moral quicksand of Hollywood with a wit and style that came from affection. The film was as much about the love of movies as it was about gangsters and corruption. Be Cool displays no such warmth or insight about the music business. Its rags-to-riches plotline seems to be more about marketing yet another Wal-Mart pop star than sending up an industry ripe for criticism. Chili’s desire to see Linda Moon succeed is as hollow and toothless as her moment of triumph — joining Steven Tyler on stage to sing, “Cryin’” — the least cool song Aerosmith ever wrote.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].