Film Reviews: Wednesday, February 23, 2005
John Travolta and Uma Thurman are having a better time than you in ĎBe Cool.í
Be Cool
Starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and Vince Vaughn. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Written by Peter Steinfeld, based on Elmore Leonardís novel. Rated PG-13.
Opens Mar. 4.
The Death of Cool

The worst Elmore Leonard adaptation to date is this sequel to Get Shorty.


The last time John Travolta played Chili Palmer, Elmore Leonardís eternally levelheaded gangster who lands in La-La Land, was in 1995ís Get Shorty. Itís hard to recall now what a tremendous performance that was, nine and a half years and one Battlefield Earth ago. Coming on the heels of his comeback role in Pulp Fiction, it was arguably an even better piece of acting. Working with lesser material than what Quentin Tarantino had given him, Travolta perfectly captured a small-time hood with an unlikely degree of interpersonal skills, a guy capable of violence but smart enough to use it only as a last resort. Watching him subtly tailor his demeanor to each person he was dealing with was a thing of beauty. He still has the same effortless charm in Be Cool, a film based on the sequel to Get Shorty penned by Leonard. This unflappable character coaxes the actor away from his hammier instincts, and Travolta still knows how to play Chiliís assuredness without coming off as smug or self-satisfied.
Unfortunately, the movie around him is a disaster zone. It betrays him by breaking the first rule of cool: Donít try too hard. Indeed, it strains mightily to spell out for us how amazing Chiliís life in L.A. is. There he is driving a hybrid car! There he is at a Black Eyed Peas concert! There he is chatting with Aerosmith! There he is at a Lakers game, sitting directly behind Kobe Bryant! Isnít that cool? Well, no, because the whiff of desperation drowns out everything else. The movie couldnít have undercut the character more if it had paired him with a six-year-old girl and a cute dog.
Of course, some of the fault lies with the original story. The premise of Get Shorty was a terrific one, taking a group of low-level gangsters and seeing them flourish as high-powered Hollywood executives. The premise of Be Cool has Chili branching out into the music industry, an idea that isnít nearly as funny. When the president of a struggling record label (James Woods) is murdered while having lunch with Chili, the temporarily down-on-his-luck movie mogul seeks out the guyís widow (Uma Thurman) and helps her out by connecting her with a singer heís discovered, Linda Moon (Christina Milian). Before they can make Linda a star, though, he has to extricate her from her scuzzy gangsta-wannabe manager (Vince Vaughn).
Why F. Gary Gray was chosen to direct this piece is a mystery. His rťsumť is full of mediocre-to-good action-based genre flicks like The Italian Job and The Negotiator, but nothing in his previous work suggests he can handle Leonardís distinctive brand of comedy. His direction here is downright gruesome ó one comic set piece after another falls painfully flat. To be sure, some of this springs from the lameness of Peter Steinfeldís screenwriting, but Gray shows zero sense of rhythm or timing. His camera simply lingers on actors while they engage in repetitive and unfunny bits of business. Even the far-flung farcical plot, which is the one element of this story you might expect Gray to handle well, has no cohesion.
That typically Leonard-like story allows for a broad range of characters (which is one reason why Leonardís books are so popular for movies), but these actors are sitting ducks. Vaughnís pimped-out white guy turns into a shrill one-note caricature, while Cedric the Entertainer is completely blanded out as an equally faux-ghetto hip-hop music producer. The idea of The Rock playing a gay bodyguard and aspiring actor might seem funny on paper, but on screen, itís really not. The worst piece of casting might be Milian. This passable actress/singer is supposed to be playing a musician who makes hardened industry professionals wet their pants over how good she is, and her unremarkable talent makes the entire plotline fatally unconvincing. And why on earth would Gray and company give the Aerosmith guys substantial acting to do? Steven Tylerís heart-to-heart with Chili is so woodenly played that the scene would kill the momentum of a great movie, never mind this one.
Be Cool is the sort of debacle that goes bad in so many different ways that itís almost watchable just to see the next way it can screw up: tired stereotypes, dumb one-liners, some totally inept stabs at metafiction inherited from the book. When Travolta dances with Thurman at a nightclub, itís supposed to be an homage to Pulp Fiction, but even though she looks hot and he looks cool, the sequence is filmed in such a gauzy and disjointed way that it doesnít come close to generating the magic that the filmmakers are going for. It makes you sad, really ó 1995 never seemed longer ago.

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