Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Get Shorty

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen (again) 25 December 2004 in Jay's Mom's Living Room (DVD)

Get Shorty isn't quite as good as I remember it being; it gets a lot of points for being a movie about people who love movies as much as its audience does. It was one of the first movies I bought on DVD, so got a lot of play because I couldn't watch VHS any more but only had something like five movies. And, let's face it, most of the cast and crew hit their apex here, and haven't been as cool since.

Go ahead, check the IMDB: John Travolta? Two movies with John Woo and a whole lot of nothing. Rene Russo? Tin Cup the next year, but that's not really cool, and then the parts dry up as she passes 40. Danny Devito? A few good parts, directs Matilda, but also directs a couple movies that are a bit too mean-spirited for the general audience. Dennis Farina? There's a lot of crap around stuff where he's probably cooler than he is here, like Out of Sight, Buddy Faro, and Snatch. Gene Hackman has a nice 2001, highlighted by The Royal Tennenbaums, but this is the end of a good run for him. Bette Midler? Ugh. How the heck is she so perfect in this uncredited role when you look at just about everything else she's done?

And, man, we shouldn't even talk about director Barry Sonnenfeld. He moves on to Men In Black, which hasn't aged quite so well, and then has Wild Wild West destroy his career. He produces some absolutely fantastic TV, but no-one watches. MGM didn't even bring him back for the upcoming Get Shorty sequel, Be Cool.

It certainly shines a light on Scott Frank's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel as possibly the real star of the show (combined with his screenplay for Out of Sight, you have to wonder what MGM is thinking having someone else adapt Be Cool). Watching the movie, I was struck by how the first act felt a lot like the opening of a certain style of book: Quick little vignettes, obviously linked but also separate. In dead-tree form, these scenes run a page or a page and a half, then there's a blank line, then another one. Sonnenfeld's contribution (along with his editor's) is crucial here, too, negotiating a lot of tricky cuts between scenes, making jumps and putting in little bits of space to separate them, making the tricky set-up portion of the movie work. It could have been smoothed out, or done more in flashback, but instead, it feels like the filmmakers are doling out random little nuggets of story even though it's mostly presented in chronological order. On the other end, though, it's all movie, finishing with a cut to an epilogue that merrily skips over a bunch of detail. It's also a sneaky ending - Frank and Sonnenfeld don't really build to it; they take advantage of how there are is no way to tell how close you are to the end of a book by how many pages are on each side of the crease to just spring it on you. Not to mention that there are no clocks in a theater; watching it on video, you lose that a little, unless you've got all of the counters and clocks out of your line of sight.

At the center, of course, is how we like Travolta's Chili Palmer and Russo's Karen Flores. They're both dissatisfied, although not necessarily aware of how big the emptiness in their lives is. Palmer is a thug, though one who prefers persuasion to physical thuggery, and doesn't really think his love of movies could be anything but a hobby until chance brings him to Los Angeles. Leonard and Frank chose to make him democratic in his love for movies, able to compliment Russo's scream queen as sincerely as he does Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He's confident with Devito's movie star, but equally as impressed with James Gandolfini's stuntman. And even if he's not really creative, he is well-suited to the role of a producer.

Karen, on the other hand, is a little more cynical. It must have been tempting for the producers to make the character a little younger, but her world-weariness is appealing. She recognizes she's getting too old for the horror movies she's working on, but doesn't have the confidence to step behind the camera until she sees Chili go for it. She starts out thinking she's washed up, only to gradually realize that she's outgrown her old role - she's not too old to be a starlet, but she's capable of more. And unlike the rest of the cast, she doesn't try to imitate Chili Palmer when impressed by his confidence; she simply shows herself to be his equal.

It's not a perfect movie - the jokes are spread a little thin, and another decade of entertainment journalism and DVDs packed with Hollywood Insider stuff has perhaps blunted the premise a little. Travolta's performance doesn't quite hold up, either - he's too singular a character, too iconic when surrounded by people with foibles. But it may just be the character; the supporting cast in Be Cool-the-novel sticks in my mind much more than Palmer did.

But it's still a very good one. My DVD collection's large enough by now that I don't revisit it nearly as often as I used to, but it still satisfies.

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