The first film was good, record producer Tommy Athens (James Woods) tells Chili Palmer (John Travolta) in the opening minutes of "Be Cool." Sequels stink, they're merely made for corporate profit, Chili adds.
Tommy and Chili, of course, refer to "Get Leo" the film Chili helped produce in "Get Shorty" (1995). Now, when we see Chili, he's recovering from the lambasting the sequel, "Get Lost" received, a sequel he didn't want to make. It's a cute joke to start "Be Cool." But it doesn't excuse director F. Gary Gray and writer Peter Steinfeld for making a horribly turgid and miserably unfunny sequel.
Gray and Steinfeld have successfully stripped all the humor and attitude out of Elmore Leonard's novel, which provided many laughs. Chili's involvement in the music business was his way to also get back into the movie business as he went about making a movie of what he was doing. All that has been omitted from the movie, "Be Cool." The problem, undoubtedly, is Steinfeld's script. Leonard's characters have attitude, charm, charisma, verve. Screenwriter Scott Frank brilliantly captured the essence of those people in "Get Shorty." Frank also found similar success adapting Leonard's "Out of Sight" for director Steven Soderbergh in 1998. Frank's impressive filmography includes "Dead Again" (1991) and this year's "The Interpreter." On the other hand, Steinfeld's contributions to cinema - "Drowning Mona" (2000) and the horribly unfunny sequel, "Analyze That" (2002). And in "Be Cool," he doesn't get a single character right. The dialogue falls flat, too.
No one seems to be having any fun in "Be Cool." They all seem to be taking themselves far too seriously and trying too hard to be funny. There's an embarrassingly lame dance sequence between Chili and Edie Athens (Uma Thurman), as if the filmmakers are trying to rekindle the magic the two actors generated in "Pulp Fiction" (1994). But this scene goes nowhere, as does a pointless cameo by Danny De Vito. His appearance only reminds us what a gem "Get Shorty" was and how we longed for Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and James Gandolfini in "Be Cool." Thurman looks sensational in a bikini, but there's nothing more to her character. Travolta, such a joy in "Get Shorty," seems thoroughly bored and, even the usually reliable Harvey Keitel is dull.
We're also saddled with Cedric the Entertainer, Andre Benjamin, The Rock and Vince Vaughn, who has rater speedily become one of the most annoying actors. The other day I realized I've enjoyed him in just two films - "Swingers" (1996) and "Clay Pigeons" (1998). In "Be Cool," a miscast Vaughn plays a Jewish manager who acts black. This could be funny if Vaughn didn't grate on us. This chap doesn't know how to act anymore - every character he plays turns into an irritating caricature with no depth. Vaughn's fast becoming a reason not to see a movie.
The charm of "Get Shorty" was that Chili realized the skills he gained being a mobster fit ideally into him becoming a movie producer. But the music business doesn't provide him with such comedy. In Leonard's novel, "Be Cool," Linda Moon, the young singer Chili befriends, was sassy, smug, vivacious and fun. She had character, charm. In the film, Linda's (Christina Milian) as pedestrian and forgettable as every "American Idol" performer. There's nothing unique about her, absolutely nothing charming. Why she would captivate Chili is a mystery. And in the film's biggest mistake, Steinfeld treats Linda's rise to stardom seriously. What was he thinking?
Everything that's wrong about "Be Cool" is crystallized when Chili waxes poetic about the reasoning behind one of Aerosmith's classic songs. The moment isn't played for laughs; it's treated as serious and emotionally heavy. Right there you realize Steinfeld and Gary had no idea how to approach Leonard's novel to give it the touch it required. I very well might see a worse film than "Be Cool" this year. But I doubt I'll be as disappointed.
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