Those are the first words uttered in Be Cool, the sequel to 1995's Get Shorty, which starred John Travolta as a Mob-affiliated loan shark whose persuasive powers made his dream of becoming a Hollywood producer that much easier to achieve. Based on a 1990 Elmore Leonard novel, Get Shorty wasn't my shot of bourbon; director Barry Sonnenfeld spotlighted all the jokes, which weren't really supposed to be jokes, in my opinion, just Leonard's satiric jabs at the industry types who kept buying the rights to his books without the slightest idea of how to turn them into movies. But Travolta delivered a beautifully layered performance ' charismatic, with glints of psychopathic danger. And there was the enjoyable sense that the slick-haired Chili Palmer, who kept pitching a story based on ' what else? ' his dream of becoming a Hollywood producer, was making up the movie as he went along.
Well, he must have developed writer's block, because Be Cool, which is also the title of the 1999 follow-up that Leonard wrote, is one uninspired piece of work. Leonard decided to shift Chili from the movie biz to the music biz, the idea being that, however deviously crooked your average movie producer is, it's nothing compared to how murderously crooked your average music producer is. ("We're all wiseguys," one of them tells Chili.) But what's left enticingly vague in the book is whether Chili's sincerely interested in the music biz or if he's merely using his toe-dip into its shark-infested waters as research for his next movie project. In other words, there's the possibility that Chili is once again making up the movie as he goes along, allowing his life to shape itself into a script. That's how it is in the book, not the movie. In the movie, Chili's sincerely interested in the music biz.
Without the self-referential high jinks, Be Cool quickly devolves into a series of comic turns by Hollywood stars who will probably not be including this movie on their career-highlight reels. Vince Vaughn both risks and succeeds at embarrassing himself by playing a white dude who wants to be a black dude, each mack-daddy line followed by "You know what I'm sayin'?" And The Rock takes playing-against-type to the limit with his portrayal of a gay bodyguard who hopes to break into movies with a monologue he's prepared from the say-yes-to-cheerleading movie Bring It On. In their defense, Vaughn and The Rock were prepared to go places that director F. Gary Gray and scriptwriter Peter Steinfeld were unprepared to take them. Cedric the Entertainer, playing an Ivy League-educated rap mogul who tries to hide his thug life from his young daughter, fares a little better, if only because he risks less.
"Maybe my material is not adaptable to the screen," Leonard once told an interviewer. "It's so subtle, it must be presented deadpan." But directors don't seem to think it's subtle. They seem to think it's madcap, bordering on farce. Leonard's ear for dialogue is so razor-sharp that all you have to do is cut and paste the novel into a spiral notebook and call it a script. But there's also the matter of tone. Like Get Shorty, Be Cool is too sweet by half, relying on the occasional toupee joke or racial slur to do its dirty work. Where's the hard-boiled toughness that's behind everything Leonard's ever written? Where's the sexiness? Linda Moon, the up-and-coming singer whom Chili wants to turn into a pop star, is a saucy dish in the novel. Here, as played by up-and-coming singer Christina Milian, she's a glorified "American Idol" contestant. We keep asking ourselves why Chili's so interested in her.
Actually, we keep asking ourselves why Chili's interested in anybody or anything. Travolta, a little slimmed down from recent outings, glides through the movie with that Cheshire-cat grin on his face, but there's no mystery this time. (You can't give a layered performance if the role, as written, has no layers.) Uma Thurman, as the wife of a slain music producer (James Woods), got saddled with a similarly underwritten role. In the book, you wonder whether she may have had something to do with her husband's demise. Here, you wonder whether she has a pulse. Travolta and Thurman do a turn on the dance floor, which only serves to remind us how cool they were in Pulp Fiction. A very long decade later, even the word "cool" doesn't seem all that cool anymore. But even if it still was cool, having Aerosmith's Steven Tyler show up as himself, ready and willing to share the stage with a Janet Jackson wannabe, would not be cool.