Every once in awhile a comedy comes along that is bright and quirky enough that it lingers companionably in the mind a long time after. Get Shorty (1995) was one of those movies; the first time I saw it, I spent the ending credits wearing a big grin, thinking back over delicious scenes and wishing I could see more of those characters. They were reliably, satisfyingly odd, in the way that only someone who has a lot of complicated past history can be. What you saw on the screen had a tip-of-the-iceberg quality.
Be Cool is a sequel that took ten years in coming, and now the reverse seems to be true: The characters are brassy, loud, and shallow, and there is a lot more of them on display than you really want to see. That’s not to say that it isn’t funny. I sat with a boisterous, appreciative audience, and they laughed continuously, and I did too. But I was also checking my watch, looking forward to the moment I could escape these strained, noisy characters, who seemed to have so little connective spark with each other.
In the original, Get Shorty, Chili Palmer (John Travolta) has come to Los Angeles to collect some mob debts, and winds up being drawn into the movie business. (One of his tasks is to get a very short actor, portrayed by Danny DeVito, to agree to star in a film.) Chili is not particularly deep, but he thinks fast, and he understands that his life depends on projecting an unvarying aura of confidence. Part of the fun was watching Chili pull out all his resources to stay on top of unfamiliar situations, never revealing when he’s out of his depth.
Now, boringly, Chili never meets a situation that he doesn’t have down cold. He’s been turned into James Bond, and the whole script is arranged around him like dishes at a buffet. The fun is gone. In an early scene a gunman aims at him point-blank, and he coolly lights a cigarette. The gun won’t fire. Well, great, but Chili had no way of knowing the gun wasn’t going to fire. The old Chili would have seen the gun and immediately tried to talk the gunman into submission, or at least confusion; he would have found a way to psych him out. New Chili has read the script and isn’t going to expend any energy that isn’t necessary. No more quick thinking and nimble wit. Instead, the humor in this scene depends on the gunman having trouble keeping his toupee in place.
The first movie was about Chili’s unplanned entry into the movie business; here, ten years later, Chili is fed up with movies and looking for something new. So virtually none of the original cast or characters carry over. Instead we have a new troupe of wheeler-dealers, gangsters, and girls, this time connected with the music business. The threadbare central plot involves a young woman, Linda Moon (Christina Milian), who is contract bound to wiggle and sing in a sexy outfit, though she’d rather be performing her own heartfelt compositions in her own authentic way. Chili is impressed and decides to make her a star. Everyone who hears her is overwhelmed with her talent, and the climax finds her on stage before a crowd of 20,000, singing a duet with Steve Tyler of Aerosmith. She goes on to star in an over-produced cast-of-thousands music video, wiggling and singing in a sexy outfit. This may have been meant as an ironic joke, but I fear not. I didn’t know what to make of her talent myself, but in one scene as Chili and a friend tell each other how amazing Linda’s performance was, a loud voice rang out in the theater: “Not!”
Even though the plot is ostensibly about Linda Moon’s rising star, she’s on screen very little. There’s trouble with her manager and his boss, with a rival record label, with an incompetent hit man, and with the Russian mafia, among others. Get Shorty had a pleasingly self-complicating plot full of bluffs and mistaken identities. Be Cool lays in complications with a sledgehammer, and the ever-increasing cast seem to be avoiding each other in favor of show-off solos.
Most egregious is a scene in which the Russian hitman uses the “n” word. Record mogul Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer) wheels on him and embarks on a too-long lecture about the artistic and economic value of the contribution blacks make to the culture (the Russian culture?). It’s clear from the staging that this is meant to strike us as heroic, but I was left thinking that “Don’t use the ‘n’ word” is not a lesson we seem to need. The moment the word escapes the Russian’s lips it’s shocking. It’s so shocking that the audience gasps. It’s so shocking that it’s not believable any of the American characters would say it, and it had to be put in the mouth of an immigrant still picking up English as a second language. But, trading on the expectation that we would be shocked, we’re then treated to a lengthy scolding, after which LaSalle shoots the Russian in cold blood. It’s a quick, cheap ride.
That doesn’t mean other minorities are treated with respect. The Russian is “comrade,” “Vladimir,” and “Tolstoy.” A gay character is addressed as “homo” and “fag.” Cliches abound: Cedric, as LaSalle, is a gangster-mogul whose secret life is decorously suburban, but he at least brings buoyancy to the role. Vince Vaughn is stuck with the much more tiresome cliché of a white person trying to act black, but he only comes across as worried. I think Uma Thurman is attempting to portray a record exec’s wife who is kind of ditzy, but her face in repose is so fundamentally sad that it’s hard to get a read on the character at all. Everyone is driving in their own separate lanes for the full two hours, though it seems much longer.
The only character who really brightened the screen was The Rock, portraying that gay bodyguard, Elliot Wilhelm. It’s not gay jokes that make him funny, but stupid jokes. He dreams of being a movie star, but his talent consists of raising one eyebrow. He prepares a “monologue” as an audition, but it’s a dialogue, and in it he swivels back and forth, attempting to portray two cheerleaders. Elliot is actually pretty endearing-the most sincere and likeable character in the movie. Who knew this professional wrestler and unremitting tough guy could be so comfortable with comedy, and so willing to make himself look silly? Now, that’s cool.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.