Travolta vs. Travolta
In 1995, the film adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty (newly released on a Special Edition DVD) was a victory lap for a post-Pulp Fiction John Travolta, and so the fact that he gives a terrific performance may not have seemed either obvious or surprising. Ten years later, it’s both.
Chili Palmer is probably most easily identified by his—that is, Travolta’s—trademark swagger. Watching the movie again, the swagger, though well-delivered, is bested by the actor’s ability to capture what Gene Hackman, speaking on a DVD feature, calls “a small boy’s delight,” Chili’s genuine adoration of the movies. When he sits in a theater alone, saying the lines to Touch of Evil just before the actors onscreen do, it’s endearingly childlike. This is the same Chili who prides himself on saying, “No more than I have to, and sometimes less.” Faced with a great movie, he can’t help himself.
Travolta may well duplicate this feat when he takes on the music business in the forthcoming sequel, Be Cool (comebacks are second nature to him), but the Get Shorty magic may prove elusive. While it’s not a film that demands repeated watching (Out of Sight is still the best Leonard movie so far), or even one that offers much insight into the movie business (yes, Hollywood is a rough town and everyone wants to be in pictures), it never breaks a sweat while earning your affection.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld hits a similar career high here, keeping pace with his star. Like a lot of movies about a decade old, the cast here seems more star-studded than it did at the time: not only Travolta, Hackman, Russo, and DeVito, but also Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo, James Gandolfini, Bette Midler, and David Paymer. Sonnenfeld finds room for all of their characters, a lot of dialogue, and a lot of scenes that accentuate character and dialogue rather than conventional “plot.” An early scene where Chili and his hilariously irritable nemesis Bones (Farina) debate the meanings of “i.e.” and “e.g.” is one of the funniest and most memorable bits in the movie, the kind of technically “unnecessary” but highly delightful moments studio execs love to chop.
Sonnenfeld keeps all of this under two hours by cutting the movie at a dazzling clip. The film moves like Travolta, quickly and with style. Get Shorty is so lean and fast-paced it doesn’t leave much for the Special Edition DVD to ponder: a single deleted scene instead of five or six; featurettes that emphasize single scenes, rather than comprehensive making-ofs.
The most substantial featurette is borrowed: an episode of Bravo’s Page to Screen that tracks the novel’s journey into movieland with emphasis on writing on both ends. Hearing about the details of Leonard’s research—down to noting the color and pattern of casino carpeting—makes the jam-packed Sonnenfeld film all the more impressive.
If the extras have a theme, it’s that making Get Shorty look effortless actually took a lot of work. The most unusual featurette concerns the shooting of the “Look at me” scene, in which Chili schools diminutive movie star Martin Weir (DeVito, the “Shorty” of the title if you haven’t guessed) in how to command attention and respect. In the featurette, we see that Sonnenfeld and DeVito decide not to call “cut” for retakes, instead having the actors continue correcting and refining their lines in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner.
These quick glances behind the scenes are more valuable than the typical promotional video (also included here). Shorty was previously available in a bare-bones edition; it only receives the double-disc treatment now as a way of promoting the long-in-the-works sequel. Even with the new extras, this easily could’ve been a neatly packed one-disc edition, especially if the behind-the-scenes feature on Be Cool was cut. The new packaging resembles the Be Cool theatrical poster, now showing outside a theater near you, and even includes a pass redeemable at your local theater for one ticket to the new film, once it opens. This puts the disc in an odd position, reminding everyone how much fun Get Shorty is while emphasizing that there’s a newer model on its way.
The ideal response, from a marketing perspective, is this: viewers remembers what a good time they had with one movie and are presumably motivated to rush out, plunk down opening-weekend money, and attempt to recapture the feeling. The potential backfire, of course, is that expectations may be raised by a re-acquaintance with the original. In either case, it’s a shame to see Get Shorty dressed up as a marketing strategy for its sequel. Certainly Be Cool has an equally promising (if more blatantly star-spangled) cast. But John Travolta in 1995 may not be competition MGM wants to invoke.