Be Cool (2005)


This review was originally published in March 2005 at Christianity Today.
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Be Cool, directed by F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job), tries to strike the cocky pose of its 1995 predecessor, Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, and other show-biz satires like The Player. But above all, it alludes to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, with its dimwitted gangsters, glamorous ne’er-do-wells, gunslinging face-offs, painful ironies, and its centerpiece John Travolta/Uma Thurman dance floor flourish.

So, let’s borrow a note from Pulp Fiction and begin with a definition:

cool, adj.

  1. Neither warm nor very cold
  2. Giving relief from heat
  3. Characterized by calm self-control

All of these definitions can apply to Be Cool, but one is especially appropriate.

Chili Palmer, the thug who smooth-talked his way into a job as a film producer in Get Shorty, continues to be the perfect role for John Travolta. Palmer’s big, square-shouldered, cigarette-slinging machismo, ice-blue stare, and self-control in the midst of Mexican standoffs are the epitome of Definition No. 3.

Regarding Definition No. 2, Be Cool‘s release date means it’s too early to offer us any relief fromsummertime heat. But it does offer two hours of climate-controlled reprieve from our troubles … even if it replaces them with new ones. Further, it’s quite a change from the “heat” of the recent, self-important, serious, and sometimes scandalous Oscar contenders.

But Be Cool is best described by Definition No. 1. Like Get Shorty, it has all of the talents it needs to bring things to a rapid boil. But Gray and screenwriter Peter Steinfeld can’t take this tepid material to anything more than a simmer.

Gray seems unfocused and uninspired, and since his style lacks energy, he fails to muster any in us. The central conflict never convinces us to care. It’s a flimsy story drawn from Elmore Leonard’s novel about a girl-group pop singer who wants to break free and release her inner diva.

Chili Palmer, restless in the movie business, wants to switch industries. When he discovers the young and talented Linda Moon (Christina Milian), he sees that he can help her find a better future. Furthermore, she can be his ticket to a new career, and provide the lift necessary for a sinking record company managed by his leggy friend Edie Athens (Uma Thurman). But first, Edie and Chili must liberate Linda from a five-year contract. To do that, they’ll have to out-talk, outmaneuver, and outwit a heartless management kingpin (Harvey Keitel) and a sleazy manager (Vince Vaughn).

It’s easy to imagine how much fun Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, or even Guy Ritchie would have had with the caper that follows, as slimy businessmen, producers, and even the Russian mafia wrestle for Linda’s contract. But Grey’s approach is to move so lazily and half-heartedly along that a viewer’s mind is likely to wander into questions like these:

  • With so many stars involved, how much money did this forgettable picture cost to make?

Mel Gibson took flack for earning millions from The Passion of the Christ — his very passionate and personal project. So why isn’t anybody questioning the dollars that exchanged hands for this empty, misguided, superstar-packed waste of time? (The film’s production budget is not listed online.)

  • Couldn’t they find something more interesting for Uma Thurman to do than show off her bikini-ready figure and play such a half-baked character?

This is Thurman’s first role since her Oscar-worthy, acrobatic Kill Bill exhibitions, where she careened between furious action-hero stunts, slapstick comedy, melodrama, and moments of grief, terror, and tragedy. Perhaps she used this film as a time to relax and recover. If so, it shows.

And when Thurman’s much-anticipated dance-floor rematch with Travolta finally arrives, it’s completely underwhelming. Gray chooses a sleazy soundtrack by the Black Eyed Peas and Sergio Mendes, and then moves the camera around so much we have a hard time seeing the dance.

  • Does Elmore Leonard’s novel really include spectacle scenes at the Viper Room, a Laker game, and an Aerosmith concert?

These scenes seem suspiciously calculated to distract us from the film’s lack of a compelling storyline, the way Anger Management collapsed into a major league baseball game. They also feel like ideas produced by “a committee,” one of the Hollywood dynamics criticized in the film.

  • Why couldn’t they develop Linda Moon, whose career plight is the crux of the matter, into a character we care about? And if she’s supposed to be a rare and extraordinary talent, why not find some songs she can perform that prove it?

Therein lies Be Cool‘s most serious flaw. The characters knowingly wink at Hollywood and Top 40 superficiality. And there are plenty of smirking references to this movie’s status as a “product” of the machine. (Chili spends one scene despising unnecessary, mediocre sequels. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, comfortably playing himself, announces, “I’m not one of those singers who appears in movies.” Unapologetic product placement is everywhere.)

But when we’re supposed to believe that Chili has found a pop-star alternative to artificiality—something “pure” and “genuine”—this exemplar of integrity starts dancing and singing like just another industry product. Pop star Christina Milian certainly knows how to strut her stuff, but if these performances are representative of her work, in a few years we won’t be able to tell her apart from the other Janet Jackson/J-Lo clones who line up for American Idol (which the film deftly skewers).

Some will argue that Be Cool doesn’t deserve much serious analysis. And they’re right. It doesn’t deserve much attention at all. Gray and Company are uninterested in anything more than mild-mannered entertainment. As far as that goes, it has its memorable moments. The end-credits montage, which gives each cast member a chance to bust-a-move, is as much fun … and substantial … as anything that precedes it. And a few of the supporting actors score points along the way.

Cedric the Entertainer seizes the film’s potential for inspired lunacy. His character—Sin, a successful hip-hop producer who hides his Wharton education in order to keep his “street cred” — is followed around by a group of muscle-bound gunslingers called the Dub-MDs. Whenever they arrive in their parade of glitzy black Hummers, the film’s heart gets a jump start.

We get another jolt from Vince Vaughn, who is, perhaps for the very first time, irresistibly funny. As Raji, an ants-in-his-pants music-biz manager and the greatest poser of them all, he goes over-the-top with “gangsta” talk and hyperactive body language. When he learns that he can’t get away with gay-bashing around his enormous, unmistakably homosexual bodyguard (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a surprisingly amusing, self-effacing turn), he has to dodge the disgruntled giant’s Herculean punches even as he smooth-talks him out of the tantrum. His frenetic rhyming manages to save his skin more than once: “Stop hatin’—start participatin’!” Vaughn seems to be working twice as hard as anyone else in the picture.

But these characters are much more exaggerated than those in Get Shorty. Their behavior is so outrageous that the dramatic turns of the plot—especially those scenes in which characters kill each other—seem jarringly dissonant.

The Pulp Fiction references only emphasize Be Cool‘s inferiority. Tarantino’s characters made you fear them even as they bewildered you, made you laugh, and made you care. Every scene was saturated with searingly memorable style and dialogue that snap-crackle-popped. It boasted career-peak performances by most of its actors. Contrarily, there’s nothing distinctive about Be Cool‘s style. Its comedy engine idles, revving only occasionally. Screenwriter Steinfeld’s dialogue strikes few sparks. And some cast members are surprisingly disappointing, perhaps miscast. Thurman’s Edie, Keitel’s Nick, and James Woods’ Tommy are lousy replacements for the memorable fools of Shorty played by Rene Russo, Gene Hackman, and James Gandolfini. Keitel and Woods, usually reliable, look like they got the call and did their scenes the same day, without a moment’s preparation.

If these actors and storytellers did want to impress any kind of message on us, it’s this tired old refrain: “Everyone in showbiz is a hustler.” But then it concludes, “Hey, who cares when there’s so much fun to be had?” The answer to that is — we care. After all, the actors are clearly having more fun than we are, walking away from this mess with big paychecks, while we’re wondering how we got swindled out of another hard-earned ten bucks.

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Director – F. Gary Gray; writer  - Peter Steinfeld; based on the novel by Elmore Leonard; director of photography - Jeffrey L. Kimball; editor - Sheldon Kahn; music - John Powell; production designer - Michael Corenblith; produced - Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher and David Nicksay. Starring - John Travolta (Chili Palmer), Uma Thurman (Edie Athens), Vince Vaughn (Raji), Cedric the Entertainer (Sin LaSalle), André Benjamin (Dabu), Steven Tyler (himself), Robert Pastorelli (Joe Loop), Christina Milian (Linda Moon), Paul Adelstein (Hy Gordon), Debi Mazar (Marla), GregAlan Williams (Darryl), Harvey Keitel (Nick Carr), the Rock (Elliot Wilhelm) and Danny DeVito (Martin Weir). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. 112 minutes.PG-13.
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