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Fan Service: Get Shorty and Be Cool

written by rick March 20, 2018
Fan Service: Get Shorty and Be Cool

Welcome to Fan Service, a new, typically sporadic (#onbrand) feature in which I feed the hungry beasts / wonderful humans of Patreon by focusing on a subject of their choice. (As with most things, this is borrowed from Nathan Rabin, though in fairness, for all his accomplishments, I’m not sure he can technically claim to have invented “taking requests.”) We start off with a request from Patreon subscriber David “No, Not That David Simon” Simon, who asked that some of our attention be briefly directed at Elmore Leonard adaptations; specifically, the very fun, snappy Get Shorty, which he enjoys, and its significantly less fun, strikingly snap-less Be Cool, which he does not.

John Travolta in Get ShortyAs David “No, Not That David Simon” Simon pointed out to me, these are effectively the same movie, or more specifically that Be Cool is like the simultaneously gaunt and over-stuffed shadow of its predecessor, hitting all the same beats except more stupider, like a toddler listening attentively to a song and then trying to bang it out himself on a plastic xylophone while John Travolta nods arhythmically, in a doomed attempt to seem more human and less Travoltish. It doesn’t work, is what I’m saying.

It’s not really the fault of John Travolta (or that hypothetical xylophone-playing toddler’s, for that matter). Get Shorty appeared in 1995, a year after Pulp Fiction, when Leonard’s meta-gangster riffery, not to mention a new-lease-on-professional-life Travolta, probably seemed of the moment and actually, well, cool. It’s good-natured and zips along. It boasts the solid competence of director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Scott Frank, who translates Leonard’s MacGuffin-filled hipster-noir with some flair and panache.

John Travolta in Be CoolBe Cool was decidedly less fortunate. (Who, by the way, spent the previous 10 years hoping to check in on Travolta’s irritatingly-named Chili Palmer?) For one thing, it replaces Sonnenfeld with F. Gary Gray, not exactly the king of the light touch, and Frank, who wrote Out of Sight, with Peter Steinfeld, who wrote Analyze That.

None of that sounds good, and it’s not. But the problems with Be Cool just cascade down from these already low elevations. For starters, Be Cool opens with Travolta and James Woods observing a billboard on the side of the road for an upcoming film, and cracking wise about how sequels never live up to the first one WHICH SHUT UP JESUS. The only thing worse than movies that think it’s funny that they are movies is singers in bands who sing about being singers in bands. It is not, has never been, and will never be clever. And the only thing worse than either of those two things is James Woods, so Be Cool has really dealt itself a terrible hand before it even gets underway. (On the plus side, James Woods immediately dies, which is how every film with James Woods except Videodrome and Contact should play.)

John Travolta and Harvey Keitel in Be CoolFor much of the rest of its strikingly uncool playing time, Be Cool seems to have resulted from a dare to see how much racist and homophobic content a 2005 film featuring John Travolta, Uma ThurmanVince VaughnHarvey Keitel, and Danny DeVito can shoehorn in before it becomes commercially untenable. And when it’s not being racist and homophobic, Be Cool decides its claim to greatness will lie in its fascinatingly dedicated commitment to dating itself.

This is a film that hinges on engineering a soul singer’s success by getting her on stage with Steven Tyler. (He was in a band called Aerosmith, by the way. Thurman has their tattoo on her lower back.) Everything can be solved, in the world of Be Cool, by getting in tight with Steven Tyler. Steven Tyler is apparently the gatekeeper of the entertainment industry. Once you have that patented Tyler Stamp of Approval, the sky is the limit. Perhaps you’ll even receive a Grammy, presented by fellow needs-no-introduction luminary Wyclef Jean.

Christina Milian and Steven Tyler of MOTHERFUCKING AEROSMITH in Be Cool Be Cool is curiously obsessed with demonstrating its pop culture bona fides through cameos that must’ve seemed strange even at the time, winking appearances that don’t scream “insider!” so much as “available that day, and probably most days!” Fred Durst is there, and Gene Simmons. The Black Eyed Peas feature prominently, alongside Wyclef and Steven Tyler (of Aerosmith, the band).

In fact, Travolta initially impresses Thurman with his knowledge of the music business by pointing out he wasn’t really into “Black Eyed Pea’s music until they teamed up with Sergio Mendes,” a truly baffling statement that Be Cool resolves by then featuring a full song performed live by The Black Eyed Peas (feat. Sergio Mendes). This is how things go in Be Cool. A recurring setpiece involves a club that apparently only plays the neo-swing music of one of those terrible fucking bands that hadn’t been horribly, inscrutably popular since around the time of Get Shorty‘s release, back when Hollywood took a look at Vince Vaughn and thought, “Now this seems like a likable guy! A little Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and we’ll be so money!” This is less a movie out of time than an artistic shipwreck full of drowning people grasping at signifiers.

In short, Be Cool is a mess, and not in a fun way. Only Dwayne Johnson comes through relatively unscathed, probably because his cartoonish self-send-up has an underlying cheerfulness the rest of the ensemble can’t be bothered to summon.

I realize now I’ve spent this entire time regurgitating Be Cool rather than celebrating Get Shorty, but so it goes. It’s never news when an airplane lands safely, as they say, and Get Shorty is a smooth, pleasant flight, unlike its ill-fated and ugly disaster shadow-double. Oh well. It’s nothing a warm bath and some of today’s popular musical bands can’t fix. Maybe I’ll check out this Aerosmith I’ve heard so much about.

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