Stop making sense

Editor's note: With this issue, Arnold Wayne Jones, a Dallas attorney and writer, joins the Observer as a regular contributor and film critic.

There's a joke about the movie business that gets revived occasionally in one form or another, usually following the latest success of Benji, or Lassie, or Mr. Ed--whichever happens to be the animal star of the day. The gag is this: after a successful movie and widespread critical acclaim, agents clamor to lure the four-legged icon to their project. Will he do TV? Commercials? Personal appearances? The beast's manager speaks up.

"He'll consider all those," the manager says. "But what he really wants is to direct."

Anywhere except Hollywood, that might be considered funny, but there probably are movie execs just eager enough to entertain such a notion if it means signing a guaranteed box-office draw. The film industry, after all, is a capricious, desperate whore, an unreliable money machine that spits out surprise failures as indiscriminately as it anoints undeserving hits; the fact is, you never know where the next brainstorm will come from, so you never want to rule anything out. (As William Goldman has said, in Hollywood, nobody knows nothing.)

Now, the game has changed. It's not enough anymore to be a director. Everyone wants to be the idea man, the one who makes the projects come true--everyone wants to produce. Get Shorty, a deadpan riff on what producers really do to get movies made, is a sly, witty poke at film's darkly comic subculture, as outrageous and strangely believable as a vivid, crazy dream.

Keeping the audience in sync with the mood of a film, especially one as funky and rhythmic as this one, can present a challenge even for a good director, and there hasn't been any indication that Barry Sonnenfeld would be up to the task. His freshman outing, The Addams Family, was a popular, messy failure--a cheeky, half-hearted piece of camp that demonstrated his inability to measure the strengths of a scene and know how to modulate the flow of a story. A disjointed bag of hit-or-miss gags, The Addams Family looked like what it was--a first film directed by a former cinematographer (he helmed the whirling, dizzy lens behind the Coen Brothers' early pictures), light on plot and character, heavy on pointless and showy camerawork. Get Shorty represents a significant advance in Sonnenfeld's filmic maturity; he seems to have realized that the screenplay should shape the visual design of the picture, not the other way around.

Sonnenfeld more than makes up for past transgressions by beautifully showcasing Scott Frank's sharp, waggish screenplay (adapted from Elmore Leonard's novel). Chili Palmer (John Travolta), a Miami loan shark, tracks one of his deadbeat clients to L.A. to reclaim an overdue loan. While there, as a favor to a friend he agrees to pay a visit to Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), a B-movie producer who squandered $150,000 of his investors' money at the track. You can tell just by looking at Chili that he means business--he's not a bent-nosed bruiser strong-arming debtors into ponying up money; he just says "Look at me," and stares at them with the contemptuously uninvolving gaze of an executioner.

But Chili's also a rabid movie enthusiast, a connoisseur of films ranging from the schlock that Harry Zimm produces to Orson Welles classics. When he pitches a movie idea--not surprisingly, about a loan shark who follows a client to L.A. and then becomes involved in the film industry--Harry thinks it might be just the thing to attract mega-star Martin Weir (Danny DeVito) to one of his projects, and finally elevate Harry from Roger Corman wannabe to a serious player. Chili, just as anxious to go legit as Harry, finds that the skills he learned in the mob have everyday application in the ruthless world of Hollywood.

Mobster or not, from the outset it's obvious that Chili is unlike most other producers and movie types, which is exactly what makes him so well-suited for Hollywood. Chili doesn't idealize the process of moviemaking--he looks on it as presenting the same challenges as everything else he approaches, from collecting debts to recovering his leather jacket from a rude, seedy mob boss (Dennis Farina).

"You make movies?" he asks Zimm.
"I produce feature motion pictures," Harry retorts. "No TV."
It's all the same to Chili, and that's why he's a rare commodity in Los Angeles: a man with style, supreme confidence, and absolutely no pretensions. Chili's offbeat persona contrasts nicely with the shallow posturing of almost everyone else in sight, and Travolta's languid performance carries the film. This isn't the cool, dopey heartthrob of the 1970s and '80s, but a full-grown adult comfortable with his own screen presence. His work in Pulp Fiction included, this is the most natural and relaxed Travolta's been in years.

Also in top form is Gene Hackman, portraying the befuddled Harry Zimm as a believable, well-rounded purveyor of sleaze (he's a cannier variation of the low-budget horror-meister in a previous Travolta film, Blow-Out). Hackman's a great character actor with the presence to play leads, but he always looks most at home in quirky, unexpected roles--clueless weasels like Harry especially. Playing scream queen Karen Flores (the only other character in the film who seems as alert and slick as Chili), Rene Russo brings a welcome charm to her part; she's a keen, convincing, and smart leading lady, not a toy used solely for decoration. (Lately it seems Russo is the only thirtysomething actress in Hollywood who gets to play her age, play it sexy, keep her shirt on, and get away with it; I don't know if that speaks well of Russo or badly of most other actresses.)

The characters probably work so effectively together because they aren't cookie-cutter archetypes concocted in script conferences, but the products of Elmore Leonard's fertile imagination. Leonard's hip, jazzy novels have made him the king of neo-crime fiction for a generation, yet movies based on his books have ignored the crafty pacing and astute character sketching that make him such a fast, fun read. (The film versions of Stick and 52 Pick-up are both rancid enough to swear you off the crime genre forever.) Get Shorty may be the first film adapted from Leonard's work that turns out to be as playful and rollicking as his prose: it's bouncy and fresh, with dialogue that rolls like dice in a crap game. The script, closely following Leonard's lean narrative, feels solidly constructed even as it skips blithely among a multitude of characters, subplots, and amusing bits.

The most remarkable thing about Get Shorty might be its approachability. Parodies about the business of filmmaking usually risk being too "inside" for general appeal, too cynical and bitter for mass consumption; even when such films are well-received, they don't exactly break box office records. Robert Altman's droll satire The Player drew humorously morbid parallels between a producer metaphorically "killing" a script in development hell, and the very real act of murdering a screenwriter; it was Tinseltown's version of social Darwinism in its wickedest incarnation. More recently, Living in Oblivion embodied the lunatic mechanics involved in staging three simple scenes on a serenely chaotic movie set. Yet neither film could be called more than a modest art-house hit. By playing its hand close to the vest, Get Shorty strikes a very different chord than those movies, though without apparent compromise. It's clever and commercial, savvy enough not to reveal the depths of its satiric roots until you're so caught up in its mood that retreat is impossible.

Get Shorty is most engaging once you realize just what you're watching: the very movie everyone on screen is trying to get made. That kind of overt, showy reflexivity--a movie about a mobster trying to make a movie about a mobster trying to make a movie--could come off as precious and cute, like some smart-ass, self-congratulatory student film. Instead, you watch it as the riotously low-key jab at the ridiculousness of the film industry, just as it was intended. (The film is so shrewd in its critique, I bet half of Hollywood hasn't even realized it doesn't leave any sacred cows untouched.) With John Lurie's grooving score and a marvelously graceful comic air, Get Shorty may become to the movies what Network was to television--outrageous, whimsical fantasy one day; sad, dead-on-accurate soothsaying the next.

Get Shorty. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Rene Russo. Written by Scott Frank, based on Elmore Leonard's novel. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Opens October 20.

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