Be Cool

Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 
  Be Cool
Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews Robin Clifford 
Record label owner Tommy Athens (James Woods, "Northfork") is pitching himself as the subject of a movie to his old friend Chili Palmer (John Travolta, "Get Shorty") when he's hit by the Russian mob.  Chili pays a visit to Tommy's widow Edie (Travolta's "Pulp Fiction" costar, Uma Thurman) and decides he wants to get into the music business, so he riles Raji (Vince Vaughn, "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story") by stealing his under contract talent, Linda Moon (Christina Milian, "Torque").  Now Chili's in the cross hairs of the mob, Raji's boss, Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel, "National Treasure"), and Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer, "Barbershop 2"), who's looking for repayment of Tommy's $300 grand debt, in the sequel to Elmore Leonard's "Get Shorty," "Be Cool."

Elmore Leonard has created a paint-by-numbers sequel for Chili Palmer, plugging in the music industry in the holes left by "Shorty's" movie biz, and Peter Steinfeld ("Analyze That") has apparently stomped all over the dialogue in adapting it for the screen.  This self aware flick has Chili dissing sequels in its first line of dialogue, and, unfortunately, the man is right.  "Be Cool" has its moments, mostly all of which feature The Rock going out on a limb with hilarious results, but even Chili's environmentally friendly hybrid ride can't keep this movie from running out of gas.

Director F. Gary Gray ("The Italian Job") follows Barry Sonnenfeld's template, providing the backstory of Tommy's link to the Russians in the same way "Get Shorty's" insurance fraud flashed back, but where Sonnenfeld's cast was all snap, crackle and pop, Gray serves up the soggy in milk version.  Travolta's OK reprising Chili, but the ten year hiatus creeps into the character - what once surprised and delighted him (the discovery that Hollywood was much like the crime world he came from) is now routine.  By contrast, Uma's a bit too plucky for someone who describes the music business as dog eat dog.  She may get to return to the dance floor with Travolta, but sadly, Thurman's not as memorable as Rene Russo's Karen Flores.

Cedric the Entertainer's gansta on the inside, daddy to preteen sweetie Deshawn (Jordan Moseley, "Woman Thou Art Loosed") on the outside is outshone by right hand man Dabu, Outkast's André 3000 making trigger-happy funny.  Vince Vaughn starts out well enough, a hip-hop wannabe in pimp attire, but his schtick wears thin after a while (he does have a great mid-film moment trying to seduce Elliott back doing a Jefferson shuffle - 'Ouisie!' - but oddly, the weird laugh he uses in his introductory scene, which he should have made a character signature, is dropped).  His flunky, Elliott, as played by The Rock, is the main reason to see "Be Cool" though, convinced that his talent for raising one eyebrow is his ticket to the big time.  Elliott's 'audition' for Chili, playing both Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union's parts in the cheerleading movie "Bring It On," is only a warm-up for his swishy country music video.

In smaller roles, the late Robert Pastorelli (TV's "Murphy Brown") mistakes open-mouthed eating for comedy as hit man Joe Loop. As Chili's protege Linda Moon Christina Milian is a generic pretty voice.  Of the many musicians who appear as themselves (Wyclef Jean, Fred Durst, Sergio Mendes), the man with the biggest role, Aerosmith's Steve Tyler, is less than stellar off stage.  Tyler's saddled with the film's most poorly written scene, where Chili changes the songwriter's mind about the genesis of "Sweet Emotion."

It is the writing that makes "Be Cool" such a tepid affair, reaching back to Michael Jackson's 1987 Pepsi commercial for stale satire.  In the film's opening scene, Chili informs Tommy that a film will get an R rating if you say the F word more than once, then declares 'Well f&*% that, I'm done.'  Sounds like the screenwriter throwing in the towel.

C+ (The Rock brings it up a notch)

Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is totally disenchanted with the Hollywood filmmaking machine that he took on ten years ago. When his friend, music producer Tommy Atkins (James Woods), is rubbed out by the Russian Mafia because of a $300k debt, Chili takes up with his widow, Edie (Uma Thurman), who took over her dead hubby’s record production company. Chili is about to find that the music business is even more cutthroat than the movies in “Be Cool.”

In the sequel moviemaker mind, if you take everything that made an original film a success and rehash, replicate and regurgitate it, then you’ll create something as good, or at least as familiar, as the source work. This seems to be the philosophy of F. Gary Gray and company in their adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s own sequel to “Get Shorty” as Chili Palmer tries to do for music what he did for movies. As is most often the case, the sequel to the fast paced wit and charm of the original is a mere, pale ghost and that is more than true with “Be Cool.”

Leonard’s novel may have been written with Travolta in mind but screenwriter Peter Steinfeld (“Analyze That”) has sucked whatever life there may have been in the author’s music business satire. Stilted dialog that lacks any of “Get Shorty’s” sparkle hampers things considerably – I grew very tired very fast with Chili’s constant admonishments to various thugs and ne’er-do-wells to “look at me.” The power of that command worked well in the earlier Palmer film but is just plain annoying here.

Just as Barry Sonnenfeld had in the original, the cast of “Be Cool” is a Hollywood and music biz who’s who of talent – Travolta, Thurman, Danny DeVito (briefly), Harvey Keitel, James Woods, Cedric the Entertainer, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a slew of rapper personalities (including Andre 3000 (AKA Andre Benjamin) as Cedric’s goofy brother-in-law lieutenant Dabu), rock’n’roll personalities Steve Tyler and Joe Perry, music legend Sergio Mendez and more populate the scenery of “Be Cool,” but they are little more than scenery.

John Travolta, in “Get Shorty,” owned the role of Chili Palmer. He made the shylock into a real living and breathing character that you loved to like because of his cool, unflappable demeanor and business savvy. Now, 10 years later, he still looks the part of the ultra-cool Chili, all dressed in black and still unflappable, but there is none of that suave savvy in Be Cool.” Here, he is pretty much just unflappable, whether taking a stand for his new “client,” Linda Moon (Christina Milian), saving Edie’s record company or facing down rival producer Sin LaSalle’s (Cedric) gun totin’ gang. Travolta fails to infuse any emotion into his Chili, making the character more cold than cool.

The rest of the cast goes through the motions but are left high and dry by the screenplay. Uma Thurman is nice” as Edie but does not provide any of the kill-or-be-killed nature necessary to her record exec. Edie calls the business “dog eat dog” but does nothing to show this side of things as they apply to her. She is perky and a little innocent and has fun dancing with Travolta in the film’s “homage” to “Pulp Fiction.” Vince Vaughn, as the white guy rapper wannabe Raji, does the jive talk amusingly, at first, but his rapid patter grows stale after a short while.

Of all of the supporting players, The Rock fares best as Raji’s gay bodyguard, Elliot Wilhelm, who wants to be an actor. The pro wrestling icon turned actor uses his patented cocked eyebrow to amusing effect. My only problem with Dwayne’s performance is there wasn’t enough of it. Andre 3000 steals his part of the show when he is on screen. There is little or no chemistry in the acting due to the routine direction by F. Gary Gray (“The Italian Job”) who, in turn, is done in by screenwriter Steinfeld. Of note: Steve Tyler gives what has to be one of the worst performances I have ever seen as a celebrity playing himself.

The very subject matter of “Be Cool” versus “Get Shorty” – music instead of movies – precludes a change in pacing that is problematic. Where “Get Shorty” had the luxury to toss off film references on a whim, “Be Cool” is severely hampered by the required full-length music numbers – four songs, a music video and a montage sequence, if I remember correctly – that disrupt the action and screw up the pacing, making the not-that-long film seem bloated and ponderous.

The reuniting of Travolta and Thurman is nice but why duplicate their “Pulp Fiction” dance? It’s blatant derivativeness only calls attention to itself without any freshness. What’s the point? “Be Cool” should follow its own advice and doesn’t. I give it a C.

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