Nobody's Definition of Cool
Being cool and acting cool are two separate things. No one exploits that gap amongst second-tier criminals with funnier results than novelist Elmore Leonard. His creation Chili Palmer was born cool and John Travolta, the actor portraying him for a second time in this sequel to Get Shorty, has impeccable hipster credentials. Unfortunately, in Be Cool every character surrounding the loan shark-turned-movie producer is a wannabe.
The stale picture amounts to a continuous loop of self-styled "players" trying to be cool and failing, minus the laughs. A parade of supporting actors whom few would accuse of being pretenders to cool -- Vince Vaughan, Harvey Keitel, The Rock, and Cedric the Entertainer -- are hung out to dry in one-joke roles.
Vaughn is a pimp who thinks he's African-American. The Rock is his gay bodyguard who aspires to a career as a Country-western singer. Cedric plays a highly educated suburban dad who makes his living as a thuggish record impresario. The defining traits of Keitel's record executive are that he's constantly on the phone and always willing to "do lunch."
When Chili's mobster pal Tommy Athens (James Woods) is killed by Russian thugs, Chili decides to break into the music business. He's tired of making movies. The thrill of the process, and of being a supposedly legit celebrity producer, has passed. He needs a new challenge; although cracking the music industry is easy thanks to Tommy's tip on a talented singer-songwriter, Linda Moon (Christina Milian) and help from Tommy's wife, Edie (Uma Thurman), whom Chili has always fancied. As he starts to guide Moon's career, feathers are ruffled and everyone is soon gunning for him. Fearless and well-tailored, Chili handles them all in the same effortless way he did filmmakers. Next thing you know Linda is on stage at the Staples center singing a duet with Aeorosmith's Steve Tyler.
Chili may have the connections and all the answers but the movie suffers from the contrast between him and his adversaries. Just as there's nothing lamer than people who think they're cool, watching a movie that thinks it's cool is tedious. Very little clicks, and having Travolta and Thurman cut the rug similar to the way they did in Pulp Fiction only underscores how hard everyone is trying.
Be Cool raises a larger question. Is the reality of showbiz, whether music or movies, finally beyond satire? Skewering those in the entertainment world has been done and done. If not immune to parody, it's hard to send them up unless you get really outrageous or crazy. With Phil Spector on trial for murder and the continuing rap wars, real-life vis-à-vis the music industry is worse than art. Keitel's character proudly admits: "This is the music business. We're all wiseguys." Younger audiences probably assume this is the case and won't find a whole movie devoted to it unique.
With their cinematic flow, Leonard's novels read like scripts. According to the movie's press notes, he was inspired to write the novel Be Cool following the box-office success of Get Shorty. So this may be the first time a sequel literary work was inspired by a movie. Inspired is the wrong word when referring to Peter Steinfeld's screenplay and F. Gary Gray's direction however. There's sanitized violence, with plenty of dead bodies lying around. The immaculately coiffed Travolta resembles one of them, though his waxy visage is presumably an intentional commentary on Hollywood.
Filming began in early 2004, but Be Cool feels like it's been sitting embalmed on the shelf at Madame Tussaud's for years. As it progresses, scenes that clearly aren't working are cut away from quickly. The decision to seal off the dead air is wise; the choice to take the title's exhortation seriously wasn't. Filmmakers shouldn't try to emulate Chili Palmer. And Elmore Leonard might want to move on as well.
(Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and rated "PG-13" for violence, sensuality and language including sexual references.)