Be Cool: Flat Sequel to Get Shorty Starring John Travolta and Uma Thurman

 

“Be Cool” is anything but. A follow-to to “Get Shorty,” the charming comedy that introduced John Travolta in the role of Chili Palmer, the streetwise mobster-turned-movie-producer, it’s one of the weakest sequels in recent memory.¬†Flat, dragging, and rhythm less, “Be Cool,” despite its hero’s name, is not hot chili either.

The name cast, which includes John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Vince Vaughn, the Rock, Danny DeVito, and musician Steven Tyler, struggles valiantly to lift the film off the ground, but, alas, it remains stubbornly earthbound. Disappointingly directed by F. Gary Gray from Peter Steinfeld’s workmanlike scenario, “Be Cool” is based on Elmore Leonard’s well-received novel.

Travolta gets to display his onscreen specialty, a blend of wise guy skills and negotiation tactics, though he has done it much better in “Get Shorty” and in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” In this tale, Chili abandons the fickle movie industry and veered into the music business, which means tangling with Russian mobsters and gangsta rappers. Plot’s point of departure is Chili’s decision to take a talented young singer, Linda Moon (Christina Milian), under his wing. To accomplish his goals, he needs to manipulate various people and events, from recording studios to an Aerosmith concert to the MTV Music Award.

A successful comedy on several fronts, “Get Shorty” put onscreen a hip, new kind of gangster, revising Hollywood’s pre-existing stereotypes. The film was a major breakthrough for Travolta, who created one of his career’s memorable characters. “Get Shorty” also encouraged a broader readership to rediscover novelist Elmore Leonard’s fiction. In this respect, the messy and fractured “Get Cool” would not do much to enhance the stature of Travolta, Gray, or Leonard.

In Hollywood, a big hit almost always leads to a sequel, though in the case of “Be Cool,” it took a whole decade. Leonard claims that it took him a while to feel confident enough to write a sequel to the book, and that Travolta’s splendid performance proved to be the crucial factor for doing so. For the sequel, Leonard decided to change the story’s arena, in line with Chili’s character, a man always looking for something fresh. Placing the characters in the music business is a good idea, since in many ways music is a rougher business than film. More dangerous than Hollywood, the music world is dominated by merciless scheming of scoundrels always on the look out for the next big thing.

With all the excitement of Peter Steinfeld, who claims to have read Leonard’s book in three hours, he has written no more than a workable scenario. Leonard writes his fiction in a filmic style, peppering his tales with crisp dialogue and energetic pacing highly suitable for the screen. But adapting Leonard may be both a blessing and a curse due to the fact that his narratives are so tightly and so uniquely cinematic.

Steinfeld’s script is not as playful as the scenarios Scott Frank did for “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty.” Steinfeld follows the book like a basic road map, and his writing lacks nuance and spirit. But the film’s major problem is not the writing but Gray’s direction. His attention to detail, visual imagination, and style, evident in former movies, such as “The Italian Job,” are not to be found here. The lighter touch of Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed “Get Shorty,” is very much missed.

On paper, the film’s cast seems ideal. The campaign cashes in on the reunion of Travolta and Thurman: “John and Uma together again!” The scene in which Travolta and Thurman are dancing, with the Black Eyed Peas playing “Sexy” in the background, tries to recreate their magical dancing in “Pulp Fiction.” Surprisingly, there is not much chemistry between him and Thurman.

The most enjoyable aspect of Leonard’s novels is their gallery of vivid and distinctive characters. In theory, “Be Cool” is no exception. The characters are unique, all motivated by personal and business agenda, all endearing and unforgettable in some respect.

Take, for example, Thurman’s Edie Athens, a sexy Los Angeles resident with beautiful suntan and grand style but burdened with a failing indie record label. Or Vince Vaughn’s Raji, a white guy with urban affectations that is desperate to be respected on “da street.” Action actor the Rock plays Raji’s bodyguard, a brawny tough and wannabe actor, who happens to be gay. He likes to pose in sexy underwear and tight pants in front of the mirror. Cedric the Entertainer plays Sin LaSalle, a Wharton-educated music producer who’s not afraid to use muscle or metal to further his aims. Andre Benjamin is cast as Dabu, a member of Sin’s hit rap group posse the DubMD’s with a whacked sense of humor and an itchy trigger finger.

Among the less interesting characters is Harvey Keitel, as the menacing head of a management company, and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who plays himself with a wink “Get Shorty” vet, Danny DeVito (who’s also the film’s producer) is back as wacky director Martin Weir, this time with Anna Nicole Smith on his arm, but he doesn’t get to do much. Even though most of the characters are unpredictable and wackos, it’s no fun watching them.

On the plus side, Los Angeles, the center of the movie and music industries, plays a character in the movie, which is meant to portray the collision of lifestyles, as Chili moves from milieu to another. The film aims to but doesn’t capture the warped, raw edge that Los Angeles exudes. Even so, quintessential locations, such as the Staples Center (with celebrities at a Lakers game), Sunset Boulevard’s Viper Room, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Hollywood Hills, and the pristine, manicured suburbs, add some color to the proceedings.

Travolta’s conception of the role as a “street James Bond,” a cool gangster like 007, is also problematic. Cool and confident, Chili is unfazed by anything and he doesn’t get flustered. He’s proud of his distinct morality as a “gentleman’s gangster,” suggesting that he may be too moral for the cutthroat music industry. Morality is, of course, subjective. Chili has some sense of fairness and of justice, but his approach to both may be a bit unorthodox, but he has an innate sense of those qualities. At this point, Travolta may know his character too well, for he gives a lazy, laid back performance, that doesn’t endow the role with any fresh angle

Despite a flawed performance, Chili is still one of Travolta’s more interesting screen characters. Chili responds to new situations and environment with resourcefulness, trying to make them more comfy for him. Always on the lookout for new opportunities, Chili may ask himself whether it’s appropriate to take advantage, and is it fair and just Never really worried about anything, he’s always analyzing how to get in and out of situations in a cool way. While in “Pulp Fiction” Travolta played a man hell-bent for death, here he plays a rugged man cool-bent for life.

Chili would dance to something with a Brazilian sound or a Latin rhythm, doing a fox trot, the cha-cha, a samba, and a mamboin line with his Frank Sinatra-era, low-key, New York-style cool. The Black Eyed Peas had recently done a brilliant rap version of a Joabim song from 1962, “Sexy,” and it’s exactly what I would have wanted to dance to.”

As Elliott, the Rock shows for the first time some humor in wonderfully incongruous moments. It’s amusing to watch the Rock, so far known for his actioners, doing a two-character scene about cheerleaders from “Bring It On”–as a dead-serious monologue. The potential in fun resides in many scenes, but it’s never fully or satisfactorily executed. The scene in which Chili and Edie go to a Lakers game to enlist Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler into their scheme to save their record label, should have been more hilarious, buts like most of the film, is flat. Cedric the Entertainer has one of the film’s best lines: About to shoot somebody, he says, “And don’t tell me to be cool. I am cool.”

As the ultimate poser, Raji, Vaughn gets to exercise his comic muscles, again playing a character that’s off center, a guy who takes on a new identity with a hip-hop vernacular and dress. Raji is not tough or secure, as he pretends to be, hence his need for a newly fabricated reality. Raji wants to be a “playa,” and acts like one, regardless of whether he has the talent or deserves the status.

All too generously, Gray gave each actor one take of a scene to do whatever they wanted to do or improvise. The result is a messy, episodic, and disjointed film to a fault, with nothing to unify the pieces together. Leonard is famous for creating bold characters and sharp and colorful dialogue. In the press notes, Gray says he wanted to make “Be Cool” as a “hip-hop La Dolce Vita,” mixing classic images with contemporary, street-like things.” But where is the energy that Gray is known for; his film is listless.

Giving the most entertaining performance, Cedric the Entertainer reflects the movie’s motto when he says: “Don’t tell me to be cool. I am cool.” The biggest challenge is to be funny without trying to be funny. Unfortunately, “Be Cool” shows the labor, the sweat, and the seams in its insistence to be cool.