|Starring:||John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Cedric The Entertainer, James Woods, and Dwyane Johnson|
Elmore Leonard didn’t write the screenplay for “Be Cool.” The title, he wrote that all right, but the rest of it was penned by a screenwriter. In Leonard’s novel, also, called “Be Cool,” his slick shylock Chili Palmer early in the book tells a friend that he hates screenwriters not only because one stole from him his girl, Karen Flores (who appeared in “Get Shorty”) but because they don’t even know where the commas go and all their stuff must be rewritten. Yes, sadly, Elmore Leonard didn’t write the screenplay to “Be Cool.”
Director F. Gary Gray’s and screenwriter Paul Steinfeld’s “Be Cool” is a tragedy, a film that could only have been excusable had Trey Parker and Matt Stone made it using puppets. Everyone involved in this mess should be ashamed of himself or herself because with the talent available, a witty sequel could have been made. But “Be Cool,” released almost ten years after its predecessor, is witless exploitation.
Before I tell you what the film is about, let me make it absolutely clear that I get what Gray and company were trying to do with this film. They were trying to make us laugh over and over with cheap comedic episodes. Many of these occurrences (mainly involving The Rock playing against type) are funny, but shallowly and cheaply so. Where “Shorty” was humorous and entertaining, “Cool” is the kind of humor one might associate with the “Police Academy” series.
Chili Palmer (John Travolta all in black) has fallen on hard times. His last movie, “Get Lost,” has flopped. If you don’t know from the previous film, Chili is now a movie producer with a 3 picture deal. One day at lunch, the Russian Mob kills a music producer former wiseguy friend of his named Tommy Athens (James Woods). It is up to Chili to team up with Tommy’s hot widow (Uma Thurman) and avenge Tommy’s death. Well, kind of. Chili decides to get into the music business and those Russians just get in the way.
Into the mix are a series of hideously ridiculous characters created not to further the plot but to evoke continuous laughs and chuckles. And briefly this strategy is successful but at the expense of the plot which ultimately is a complete rip off of “Get Shorty.” Surely with this much talent a better adventure could have been developed to expand the “cool” former shylock Palmer.
I guess I liked the first film so much because I liked Travolta in the role. It was a role with a solid back story that unfolded in an intelligent and colorful way. In “Be Cool” Chili is so overshadowed by cartoonish characters played by some of Hollywood’s finest attempting to ham it up in what can only be described as an attempt to elevate the bad material.
Vince Vaughn’s turn as a music agent who has adopted a black persona and vernacular is funny for about 5 minutes then becomes an annoyance. Cedric the Entertainer takes on a role as a hip-hop music producer who exhibits every single trait that real hip-hop music producers have fought mightily to reject.
And Uma Thurman is like a pleasant shade of paint on a wall doing little more than smiling and looking positively brainless. When she and Travolta are together, there is no chemistry and when they both look dreamy at their latest artistic find (a peppy young singer), it is sickly sappy and insincere. A scene in which they meet with Steven Tyler in a skybox at a Lakers game is especially trite. Tyler even permits his rock anthem “Sweet Emotion” to be cheapened by allowing the fictitious Chili (remember that Tyler plays himself here) to suggest what TYLER must have been thinking when he was writing the song. I mean, come on, this kind of thing is dumb, and might happen if Tyler were still on the sauce and drugs but not now. He and Travolta do appear drugged in the scene which explains much, let me tell you. I know that Aerosmith is a band that always tried to skirt deep meaning in their songs but, lets face it, real fans found meaning and wouldn’t ever try to tell Tyler what he thought when writing any of the lyrics. Such a thing is so pretentious that it made me squirm in my seat.
And the music in the film is without any personality. The scenes in which Christina Milian playing the struggling singer Linda Moon sings are poorly done appearing staged and badly synced. And Milian can sing based on what I’ve read about her. The soundtrack of “Get Shorty” perfectly captured Chili’s attitude. Here the music is disconnected having little to do with Chili focusing instead on someone’s idea of what might attract a younger audience. This is sad because I’ll bet that true hip-hop fans won’t even buy the soundtrack. And if the objective is to integrate hip-hop into the story, why not get a hip-hop icon to help them out instead of Steve Tyler?
But all hope isn’t lost. The Rock is terrific. Really he’s funny, very funny, playing against type as a gay bodyguard. Through spoofing his wrestler trademarks like the raising of one eyebrow thing, he manages to get the biggest laughs in the film. His presence alone will keep people in their seats for the duration. In a way, regardless of his previous films, this is a star-making role for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He has a future with legs in this business and probably in comedy.
But alas, even the dialogue in “Be Cool” is bad. This is unforgivable. Because Leonard’s books are all dialogue, phrases that stick with you and long paragraphs of discussion. The kind of stuff that can be easily adapted for the movies because, after all, at this point, Leonard knows that whatever he writes has a better than average chance of making it to the screen. But when the best character in the film version is one that succeeds only because it is played by a popular wrestler spoofing his former alter ego, you realize that at some point Leonard only came up with the title to this disaster. And it is a cool title even if the film isn’t.