Just because a film in its opening scene cops to the fact that most sequels are market-driven suck-fests doesn't give the filmmaker carte blanche to deliver a market-driven suck-fest and pass it off as postmodern and cute. But that's exactly what F. Gary Gray does here in Be Cool, the sequel to the 1995 Barry Sonnenfeld-helmed hit Get Shorty.
Like its antecedent, Be Cool is adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, but anyone hoping for Leonard's lively language and zigzag plotting will be disappointed. We do get John Travolta reprising his role as Chili Palmer, mob-loan-enforcer-turned-movie-producer engaged in a nearly identical set of troubles.
Palmer, who now believes that filmmaking has become "too corporate," sets his sights on the "jungle" of the music business (a distinction lost, in today's world of integrated entertainment megalopolies, in a film hyping musicians as actors). He's tipped off to hot young singer Linda Moon (Christina Milian), who's under contract to Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) and managed by the sleazy Raji (Vince Vaughn). Palmer secures the help of Edie (Uma Thurman), the owner of a struggling indie record label. Complicating matters are Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer), a rival record producer with a crew of thugs; a pack of Russian gangsters; and Eliot (The Rock), Raji's strongman, who wants to be an actor.
The sly charm of Get Shorty was that Palmer, from the cultural dead zone of Miami, discovered that his streetwise smarts (and romantic nostalgia for film) enabled him to smoothly ingratiate himself into the cutthroat business of the movies. It was simply a lateral shift from gangster to producer, and that film was a pleasing if lightweight satire of both professions. But a joke told twice is rarely funny: Be Cool borrows the plot outline and characters (even lifting entire scenes from Shorty nearly verbatim). It aims for the same vibe, but ends up delivering a shiny garbage heap of self-referential smirks and seriously stale jokes.
To cite just one failed narrative strategy, the film actually takes its plucky-girl-singer, road-to-stardom plot seriously. These sequences negate the film's larger comic premise that the music biz is a wild and brutal hell. Unless you have talent and believe in your dreams; then you can be a star overnight and blah blah blah ...
Besides ripping off Shorty and American Idol, Be Cool forces us to endure another cheap homage when Travolta and Thurman share a dance in a nightclub (I'm being pounded with a Pulp Fiction hammer). Yet the moment is lifeless and leaden with self-consciousness. I don't know whether it's the script, the film's careless tone, or perhaps simply that lightning doesn't strike twice, but Travolta and Thurman exhibit zero chemistry.
Thurman does look great in a bikini (and dreadful in everything else -- did Fleetwood Mac have a yard sale?) but displays no flair for comedy. Travolta is simply punching the clock, mechanically repeating gags from Get Shorty, as if the mere fact that he showed up in costume equals a winning lead performance.
Befitting the director's background in music videos, there are several full-length musical segments, including a concert performance by the walking embarrassment that is Aerosmith that will have you instinctively reaching for your remote. Then there's a built-in ad for the Staples Center and the Lakers. (This is a good time to check my T-Mobile phone and my Sidekick as seen in Be Cool, before the MTV Music Awards promotional sequence.)
Gray's sense of comedic pacing is miserable (even allowing for Peter Steinfeld's lousy screenplay): Scenes drag on; jokes are repeated and others should have hit the editing room floor (Palmer: "Do you know the Sugarhill Gang?" Raji: "I know the Put-a-Cap-in-Yo-Ass Gang.") Even the respectable actors on board can't wring laughs from this mess. The audience chuckled early on for the three broadest roles -- Outkast's Andre Benjamin as a bumbling gangsta, Raji's wigga stylings and The Rock's gay turn (which seems to have its roots in the lavender hot-pants caricatures of 1970s sit-coms) -- but even those giggles dropped off after an hour.
Late in the film, responding to a racial epithet, Cedric's Sin gives an impassioned (for this film) defense of the significance of African Americans' contributions to culture. To wit: They help white people be cool.
Color me stunned: Is the film trying to make this point? I'd just sat through 90 minutes of jivin' blinging moronic gangstas, ass-shaking hoochies and a white idiot talking like a black idiot. Even if you're not offended by these base stereotypes, they all stopped being funny (or cool-making) years ago.
Then, after making his demand for intellectual respect, Cedric shoots the offending guy point blank. That pretty much sums up how witless this film is.
Be Cool deserves a double-bill with last year's Ocean's Twelve, another star-heavy vanity project that practically screamed, "I'll make you watch my crappy sequel, suckers!" Filmmakers can choose to squander their ample resources this way, but there's no reason we have to spend our hard-earned money to be on the receiving end of such contempt.
I took home one laugh from Be Cool. Reading the closing credits I thrilled to note that in actual real-life Hollywood, Travolta's phoned-in "star" performance required the services of no less than 11 toadies and caretakers. Now that's an inside detail that's funny.