GET SHORTY (1995)

A big-name Hollywood actor is eating breakfast with his rock-star girlfriend at a posh L.A. cafe. "Every morning, he faces west so he can look at his billboard," explains B-movie veteran Karen (Rene Russo) to West Coast newcomer Chili Palmer (John Travolta) as they drive by. "Every morning, she faces east so she has an excuse to wear her shades."

Elmore Leonard's incisive wit and keen eye for character detail put his Hollywood crime novel Get Shorty on the top of the bestseller list in 1990. Now, augmented by a prodigiously talented ensemble cast (including a few surprise cameos) and Barry Sonnenfeld's animated direction, Get Shorty becomes an even better movie. Devilishly clever, splendidly directed, and exceedingly entertaining, Get Shorty is Usual Suspects-lite, a comic tale of moguls, mobsters, and the volatile consequences of combining the two.

The story begins in the seedy underside of Miami, where Chili, a cinema-loving loan shark with a heart of gold and eye for business, decides to find new employment in Tinseltown after losing his Mafia protection. While collecting a debt from horror-movie mogul Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), Chili pitches his idea for a movie entitled Get Shorty, a film about a cinema-loving loan shark who...well, that would be giving it away. Suffice to say that soon enough both Chili's old mob connections and the local criminal elements take notice of their errant son, or, more to the point, the $300,000 of mob money he has with him.

Meanwhile, Chili simultaneously attempts to court Zimm's girlfriend Karen (Russo) and convince her thespian ex-husband Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), the diminutive King of Hollywood, to play the lead in his film (hence, Get Shorty). Chili's movie mission becomes increasingly complicated and uproarious, particularly after the various powers-that-be in Hollywood sit up and take notice of Tinseltown's newest resident.

Calm, collected, and oh-so-cool, Travolta exudes all the requisite charm and competence necessary to make the film's events plausible. When Chili orders the other characters to "look into my eyes," we too can sense the charismatic draw that Chili exerts upon his prey. Russo, stunning as usual, makes the best of a bland role with her portrayal of Karen, the shrewd ex-scream queen who, like the rest of Hollywood, can't help falling under Chili's spell. Hackman and DeVito's industry types, the unctuous Zimm and narcissistic Weir respectively, seem more a humorous critique of Hollywood egoism than a condemnation of it. Zimm and Weir's worst traits can't compare to those of the mobsters (the consistently funny Dennis Farina and Delroy Lindo), who show themselves to be no less corrupt yet much more brutal than their Hollywood counterparts.

And yet, despite the excellence of the ensemble, the real star of the film may be Elmore Leonard's biting sense of humor, which the screenwriters wisely chose to retain or incorporate into the dialogue. Of Zimm's previous work, one mobster notes, "I've seen better film on teeth." When Chili asks a mob tough why he's working for such a scumbag, the latter replies, "These days, it's the best you can do unless you speak Spanish." The infectious fun of Leonard's rapid-fire wit nicely complements Sonnenfeld's quirky direction. Building on his previous successes with the Addams Family movies (and made before the disaster that was Wild Wild West), Sonnenfeld stylizes his settings and characters just enough to keep even the darkest moments fun without resorting to absurdity.

In short, like its recent Leonard compatriots -- the underrated Jackie Brown and the sexy Out of Sight, Get Shorty stands tall. Rarely in past years has Tinseltown made such an intelligent, well-acted, and enjoyable comedy. Perhaps Chili should stick around Hollywood.

[First Draft appeared in Harvard Independent, 1995.]

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