by Ed Symkus

It didn't really matter that Get Shorty, the 1995 spoof of Hollywood based on the Elmore Leonard novel, was a mediocre film. With all the star power, glitz and hipness, the film was a hit, more than doubling its budget in ticket sales. So what's Hollywood to do almost a decade later? Make a sequel! After all, Leonard had already written one, and it wouldn't be hard to ratchet up the quality quotient a little. But no, in this case, mediocrity breeds mediocrity.

Be Cool is an unworthy follow-up to its predecessor, one that is unlikely to make back its money. The film picks up a while after the first one ended. Chili Palmer (John Travolta) has made a successful transition from mobster to movie producer. But sitting and talking to a record producer pal, Tommy (James Woods), he admits that he's tired of the film business and suggests that there are too many sequels.

That's about as hip as this one gets. A little wink of the eye, then the film gets down to becoming complicated, starting with Chili's thoughts of getting into the music business. And before you can say Top 40, a parade of characters is introduced, some of them funny, some of them frightening -- and one rather badly acted.

That would be Edie (Uma Thurman, overdoing it and missing every mark by a wide swath), freshly widowed. But she's determined to keep her late husband's record label running -- not so easy when the company owes a pile of money to rival producer Sin (Cedric the Entertainer), and the only talent waiting to be signed is Linda (Christina Milian), who's already contracted to nasty managers Raji and Nick (Vince Vaughn and Harvey Keitel). Toss masculine but very gay bodyguard Elliot (The Rock) into the mix, and the film is set to go.

But it goes wrong. This is a movie with lots of sparkling little pieces: Travolta turns in a smooth performance, allowing Chili to glide through his world, knowing everyone, welcome everywhere; smiling away and "being cool," even when guns are pointed at him ad nauseam. Vaughn and The Rock share some nicely crafted scenes -- Vaughn comically playing Raji as a flamboyant white man who truly believes he's black, and letting everyone know it; Rock primping up Elliot to truly funny degrees, admiring himself in mirrors, putting his "people's eyebrow" from his WWE tenure to splendid use. The grandest sequence is his recreation of a Kirsten Dunst scene from Bring It On. Even Cedric, playing a two-faced fellow -- warm and loving daddy when his little daughter is around, gun-toting tough guy when a radio programmer won't play one of his songs -- turns in a solid performance, going almost surreal when he gives a serious speech about blacks in America.

But the film ends up being too segmented, too disjointed. Its script is scattered, its direction is out of control. Soon there are stories about some under-explained Russian thugs, Sin's band called WMD (ahh, more hipness!), Linda's fast-track rise that keeps getting stalled, and let's not forget the mightily strange inclusion, first of Steven Tyler popping up at a basketball game, then a performance by Aerosmith -- who knows why? The plot additions just keep on coming, but none of them are developed.

If only there was more of a point to the whole exercise. An easy way to sum the film up is that it exposes the music business as being populated by a bunch of people who want to kill each other, not as a way to eliminate competition and increase profits, but because they either misunderstand or lie to each other.

Again, there are good moments. Elliot's gayness is partly presented, without a word spoken about it, by the camera looking around his apartment and noting that he has posters of

Rhinestone and Moonstruck on his walls. As an homage to their roles in Pulp Fiction, Travolta and Thurman share a slinky little dance, even though there's no real reason for the scene.

So what does the title have to do with anything? In the early going, it appears to refer to Chili's attitude and demeanor. He is simply unshakable. But before long, different characters are blatantly uttering the phrase out loud, usually when someone who's pointing one of those guns needs some calming down. At least the filmmakers had the good sense to try to tie up all of the numerous loose plot strands in the end. Unfortunately, the result is a tangle, not a nice clean knot. Chili was right: Hollywood makes too many sequels.

Publication date: 03/03/05

Festival of America @ Grand Coulee

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