Be Cool (2005)

Though 'cool' is a label tossed around a lot in this film, with the possession or lack of that quality defining all the characters' worth, 'smug' would be more a apt term. Knowingness sets in early, when James Woods' cameo character alludes to the fact that Chili has made a disappointing sequel to the film we saw him creating out of his real-life experiences in Get Shorty, and shades into insufferability about the time Steven Tyler turns up to explain that he's got this far into his career without having to do a celebrity movie cameo.

Elmore Leonard reportedly wrote the novel Be Cool after the success of the 1995 film of Get Shorty, which makes it one of those literary efforts (like Thomas Harris's Hannibal) that seems to sequelise a movie adaptation rather than the previous book and thus exists in its own vacuum. Whereas Get Shorty benefited from Barry Sonnenfeld's confident direction and Scott Frank's smart script, this tardy follow-up has been entrusted to hacks F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator, the remake of The Italian Job) and Peter Steinfeld (veteran of another disappointing sequel Analyze That), who smother Leonard's exploration of the crooked side of the music business with schtick, cameos, running jokes that run on too long and a frankly desperate need to make a follow-up not only to Get Shorty but Pulp Fiction. An embalmed-looking John Travolta, who should perhaps have learned the lesson of Staying Alive if not Look Who's Talking 2 and 3, reprises his smooth gangster persona, and is reunited with Uma Thurman - whose Evie comes on like a prime suspect in her husband's murder (she is interviewed by the investigating police while wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with the word 'widow') but turns out to be exactly the innocent Chili takes her for - and even gets another oddball dance sequence with her, which falls flat and makes the film seem more like a Naked Gun entry than a serious comedy-crime movie.

The joke of Get Shorty was that an actual criminal like Chili was more trustworthy than the sharks of the film business, which is here extended to the even more flamboyantly crooked record industry; a problem being that Leonard and the filmmakers have a far more cartoony understanding of the specifics of a related industry, which means the satire veers between the obvious (gun-happy rappers) and the oddly merciful. Gene Hackman's producer Harry Zimm, unseen here though a poster reveals he has worked with Tom Hanks, was not only a sleaze but responsible for bad movies. Here, we are supposed to believe Evie and Sin at least are genuinely interested in the career of their discovery Linda Moon and that the singer (played by newcomer Christina Milian) is a real talent. That Milian has had a couple of hit records shouldn't take away from the fact that Linda Moon comes across as deeply bland, but does point up the film's major failing: it accepts the music industry's ridiculous self-belief that mediocre pop is a worthwhile endeavour. The girl group (Chicks International) Linda is stuck in, supposedly only a step up from pole-dancing, are ridiculed for relying on tacky '70s covers - but there's no hint of irony in that her salvation and the road to artistic integrity comes in a duet with the hardly cutting-edge Aerosmith. Tact about the guest stars even extends to an elaborate sub-plot which establishes that while Evie has an Aerosmith tattoo on her ass, she was not a groupie with the band but did their laundry while on tour.

Though it has some of the signs of a troubled production - the early departure of the late Robert Pastorelli suggests his problems impacted on the production, while Seth Green is unbilled in a tiny (trimmed?) role - Be Cool flickers to life every few minutes, mostly when some of Leonard's snappy dialogue (or imitation of same) floats to the surface and energises a performance. Vince Vaughn has done comic evil rather too often (Starsky & Hutch, DodgeBall) and the Jewish guy-talking-black business is (post-Ali G) literally beyond a joke, but his commitment to non-stop patter sometimes overcomes the odds as he gets off a zinger (patronised by a miniskirted secretary, Raji snaps 'a cute ass won't get you through all of your life … by the time you turn thirty, you better grow a personality'). Cedric the Entertainer and the Rock also get potentially funny one-scene roles, as a prissy middle class rap promoter and a desperately gay aspiring star, that carry on, to diminishing returns, throughout the film - and yet both have good moments, in a speech about the way black culture is co-opted by the white mainstream or a bizarre audition turn that finds Elliott doing a scene from Bring It On.

First Published In: Sight & Sound vol.15 no.5 (May 2005) pp.44-45

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