While you may not immediately recognize the name Elmore Leonard, you are probably familiar with his work. If you’ve ever seen a crime drama involving a large cast of colorful characters competing for a prize and forming unlikely alliances, there’s a good chance that crime novelist Leonard was behind it. “Jackie Brown” and the more recent “The Big Bounce” are examples of his stories. Arguably the best Elmore Leonard movie of all time was “Get Shorty,” which achieved the rare feat of being better than the book upon which it was based. “Be Cool,” the sequel to “Get Shorty” has just been released, and it too is better than the book it’s based on. In the case of this film, that’s not saying much, because the novel was uninspired and unusually tepid for Leonard’s work. The film version of “Be Cool” is not the witty crime drama that “Get Shorty” was, but succeeds in a very different way.
“Be Cool” continues the adventures of Chili Palmer (John Travolta), a shylock-turned-Hollywood producer. This movie picks up years after “Get Shorty” left off, and Palmer is now disillusioned with the cutthroat world of Hollywood. A sequence of coincidences leads him to music production. “Be Cool” does for the music industry what “Get Shorty” did for the film industry. The tried-and-true Leonard formula is here in full effect. The prize in this one is Linda Moon (Christina Millian), an up-and-coming singer whom Palmer decides to produce. The factions of colorful side characters include Moon’s current rap producer, his group of thugs and the Russian mob.
As crime dramas go, “Be Cool” is too silly to be taken seriously. Fortunately, the movie works so well as a comedy that this doesn’t matter. The screenplay is smooth and flows naturally without a lot of hokey gags forced in, and the comedy is left up to the actors, who come through in spades. Every comic performance is pitch-perfect, although Vince Vaughan’s white-boy-who-talks-black character is a tad overused. The cast is filled out with recognizable actors who are at their best here, and every scene becomes hilarious. Of special note is The Rock, who plays a gay bodyguard with aspirations of becoming an actor. The Rock turns in a surprisingly good performance, investing his ridiculous character with a believable emotional foundation. Also worth mentioning is Outkast’s Andre Benjamin, who appears in a peripheral role as one of rap producer Sin LaSalle’s (Cedric the Entertainer) thugs. Benjamin’s performance is subtle and understated, yet he is doing something hilarious every time the camera cuts to him.
In addition to the wonderful character acting in “Be Cool,” any fan of movies or music will find plenty of referencing and satirizing to chew on. There are star cameos, fake posters, and tons of pop-culture references. These things are all handled in a way that underlines the superficiality and ridiculousness of the entertainment world. This aspect of the film, like its characters, is pushed to downright goofiness.
In spite of how insanely goofy “Be Cool” becomes, it all still works. This is because of John Travolta’s Palmer, who provides the grounding that the film needs. Palmer is unflappable, painfully cool, and is never goofy for an instant. Playing his love interest Edie Athens is Uma Thurman, and Athens is also a down-to-earth character. The relative normality of the two central characters keeps the movie centered and moving forward, with all the goofy side characters along for the ride. Incidentally, Travolta and Thurman have the same wonderful chemistry we all remember from “Pulp Fiction” and there is even an extended dance scene in there for them.
The production design in “Be Cool” is also worth mentioning. The costumes and sets have been selected with an exacting eye for detail, and the frame is always crammed with amusing and/or informative things in the background. The world that these characters inhabit is vibrant and detailed.
“Be Cool” is light entertainment, but it is pulled off with a unity and flair rarely seen in this type of movie. Its source material, Leonard’s novel, was capably written but still lacking. Certain plot elements have been tweaked and the primary focus has changed from crime to comedy, and the film emerges as a surprisingly intelligent and unrelentingly funny gem.