“The guy’s a crook. “
“So? This town he should fit right in.”
--"Get Shorty” by Elmore Leonard
The town, of course, is Hollywood, and the genial premise of Leonard’s novel and the diverting film that’s been made from it is that being a success in the movie business is a piece of cake for those schooled in more traditional criminal pursuits.
The crook in question is Chili Palmer, a smooth Miami loan shark and movie fan who finds himself in L.A. on mob business. Once he discovers that “I don’t think the producer has to know too much,” he sees no reason why he shouldn’t be getting some of that action as well.
Wittily directed by “Addams Family” veteran Barry Sonnenfeld and adapted from Leonard’s effortlessly wised-up work by Scott Frank, “Get Shorty” is light comedy in an amoral setting. The jokes are quick, with clever jibes alternating with double-crosses and the occasional murder, and the streamlined plot unrolls like a colorful ball of twine.
At the center of it all, an island of calm with every hair carefully razor cut, is Chili, a hard guy with a soft heart. John Travolta plays him as a Mafioso Cary Grant in a black leather coat, and the fit is perfect. Sexy, funny and completely charming, Travolta gives a splendid, old-fashioned star performance that pushes the picture to a level that would not have been possible without him.
Chili gets to L.A. via Las Vegas, where he went looking for a nervous Miami dry cleaner in hock to the mob who supposedly died in a plane crash. The dry cleaner, however, turns out to be alive enough to be spending his way through the $300,000 he scammed from the insurance company.
As a favor to a Vegas pal, Chili also pays a visit to a producer named Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman) who owes money to a casino. Though Harry’s credits are of the “Slime Creature” variety, Chili has heard of them and, almost as a lark, pitches the dry cleaner story as a major motion picture. Harry is interested, but the B-picture scream queen (Rene Russo) in whose house Harry is crashing is not amused--though we can tell she finds Chili kind of cute.
The longer Chili stays in L.A., the more complicated things become. Harry has his hands full with nasty Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo), who runs both drugs and a limo service and, yes, is also eager to move into producing. For his part, Chili has to deal with a surly Miami associate, Ray (Bones) Barboni (Dennis Farina). And everyone has to cope with Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), the hottest actor in Hollywood off his starring role in “Napoleon,” the man with the power to turn everyone’s movie dreams into gold.
This is the briefest outline of a pleasantly complex criminal confection that Sonnenfeld and Frank keep moving at an amusing pace. Though the entire cast (including unbilled cameos by Bette Midler and Harvey Keitel) contributes, Travolta is the man who keeps this souffle from collapsing. Watching him charm his way through continual difficulties, it’s hard to believe that the movie business all but ignored him for years and that he himself turned down this dream assignment twice before “Pulp Fiction’s” Quentin Tarantino, the godfather of the actor’s current rebirth, convinced him to do it.
Elmore Leonard’s novels and short stories have been made into numerous films, but “Get Shorty” comes the closest to re-creating his casual yet dazzling verbal style, characterized by sentences that surprise you and dialogue that knows its way around. And the film also does a good job with the book’s gentle digs at the inane way the movie business tends to function.
Less successful are the film’s new twists, including a visiting drug lord subplot that doesn’t contribute anything and the addition of a more conventional ending, the book being so lacking in one it even jokes about its lapse. Unlike Chili, “Get Shorty” is not going to knock anybody out, but in the category of amiable diversions it’s awfully tough to improve on.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and some violence. Times guidelines: thankfully tame compared to most R-rated productions.
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John Travolta: Chili Palmer
Gene Hackman: Harry Zimm
Rene Russo: Karen Flores
Danny DeVito: Martin Weir
Dennis Farina: Ray (Bones) Barboni
Delroy Lindo: Bo Catlett
A Jersey Films production, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. Director Barry Sonnenfeld. Producers Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher. Executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld. Screenplay Scott Frank, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. Cinematographer Don Peterman. Editor Jim Miller. Costumes Betsy Heimann. Music John Lurie. Production design Peter Larkin. Art director Steve Arnold. Set decorator Leslie E. Rollins. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.