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Be Cool

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Vince Vaughn, Cedric the Entertainer

(MGM; US DVD: 7 Jun 2005)

Hijinks Ensue

Be Cool starts off on the wrong foot and proceeds downwards. The first thing we see is John Travolta’s Chili Palmer driving through the streets of Hollywood in a black Cadillac; he mutters the word “sequels.” Ten years after Get Shorty, the former mafia man is ready to quit the movie business after having been strong-armed into producing a sequel he didn’t want to make and no one wanted to see. We know the feeling, John.


It’s not so much that Get Shorty was great, one of those rare films that looks better as the years go by. It’s not even that sequels are necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that Be Cool doesn’t seem to have any reason to exist outside of profits. The closest comparison is Jurassic Park‘s first sequel, The Lost World. Both Get Shorty and Jurassic Park were based on best-selling novels, by Elmore Leonard and Michael Crichton, respectively. Both authors wrote their sequels after successful movie adaptations of their original books. But while Be Cool has Leonard’s imprimatur, like The Lost World, its plot machinery creaks.


Though Get Shorty was as insubstantial a confection as you can imagine, it worked because it was so damn effortless. Be Cool is anything but, and that loud creaking you hear in the background is the sound of the bucket coming up dry. The plot starts as record producer Tommy Athens (played with gusto by James Woods) is killed by the Russian Mafia. His friend Palmer takes a ride across town to console Edie (Uma Thurman), the widow and now sole proprietor of Athens’ record company. He volunteers to help her run the business. The proverbial hijinks ensue.


The failures of Be Cool wouldn’t be so frustrating if it wasn’t filled with some of Hollywood’s best character actors in delightful supporting roles. As Palmer makes his way through the music industry, he picks up an aspiring singer (Christina Milian) and encounters a murderer’s row of punks, thugs, gimps, goons, and gangstas: Travolta provides a still center around which folks like Vince Vaughn, Cedric the Entertainer, Harvey Keitel, and the Rock can move. There’s not a single supporting player who doesn’t acquit himself admirably, and a couple come close to stealing the picture outright. But they don’t make up for the movie’s gaping holes, namely a bored Travolta, a vacuous Thurman, and the barely reanimated corpse of a plot. (This last is especially galling when you look at the deleted scenes included on the DVD, some containing necessary information that makes their exclusion baffling.)


As the ineffectual bodyguard to Raji (Vaughn), the Rock’s Elliot Wilhelm is a frustrated actor. He’s also gay and likes to sing country and western songs. He has posters of Cher, Dolly Parton, and The Wizard of Oz on his apartment walls, and his audition piece is a monologue from Bring It On, but the Rock makes what could have been a jumble of Will & Grace outtakes into something unforgettable. Of special note is the DVD’s inclusion of the complete video for Wilhelm’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough,” a kitsch classic in the making, and worth the price of the DVD rental in and of itself.


Cedric the Entertainer also does himself proud. As Sin LaSalle, he’s a rival record producer, looking to be paid a debt owed by Athens. He’s got an MBA and a posse of comically thugged-out enforcers. While he’s ostensibly the villain, he ultimately ends up victorious, getting Athens’ money as well as a piece of Milian’s successful career—an interesting inversion of the usual Hollywood formula, and well in keeping with the impish tone of the original Get Shorty. He even gets to deliver the movie’s single best monologue (yes, even better than the Bring It On piece), concerning the dominant historical role of black culture in American entertainment.


But for great moment featuring Elliot or Sin, there’s an execrable cameo by the likes of the Black Eyed Peas or Aerosmith. The former’s number inspires the much-hyped dance-floor reunion of Travolta and Thurman, but it is quite possibly the worst filmed dance sequence in the history of cinema. For one thing, you don’t see their bodies in full, just fast cuts of body parts. During the “Golden Age” of the movie musical, directors knew to create some distance between the camera and the dancers. This scene is just a mess, and Travolta and Thurman could be doing the mashed potato for all the rhythm and continuity the scene communicates.


Lack of communication is something of a theme for the DVD: with no commentary track to explain what anyone might have been thinking, its only extras are a couple of useless making-of featurettes, heavy on plot-summary and light on any insight to the filmmaking process and, with the exception of a brief look at the making of Elliot’s music video, devoid of any interest. Even the gag reel is badly edited (although the fact that Thurman’s red convertible kept stalling on set got a chuckle out of me). Such cursory special features suggests that this will not be Be Cool‘s definitive DVD release. If you absolutely have to own it, wait another six months for the inevitable Deluxe Edition.

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