By Doug Cummings
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Part of the recent tide of popularity Quentin
Tarantino is riding is due to his flippantly verbose
characters in movies like "Pulp Fiction" that, like everything else in his films, are inspired by other material. Tarantino is an acknowledged devotee of the contemporary crime novelist Elmore Leonard and while the latest movie based on Leonard's work, "Get Shorty," doesn't directly involve Tarantino, the movie contains the same sort of snappy, superfluous dialogue and wisecracking characters that proliferate his work.
The movie stars John Travolta as Chili Palmer, a suave loan shark who is sent to Hollywood to coerce a producer, Harry Zimm, to pay a debt he owes a casino. But it's not long before Chili, a devoted movie buff, begins pitching a story idea to Zimm based on the experiences of an associate of his, Leo, and a large sum of money that is trading hands amongst various gangsters and ruffians.
What follows is the development of a fictional movie based on characters and situations that are currently being played out in the "real" movie and much of "Get Shorty"'s humor lies in its exploitation of this relationship. Zimm deciding to cast the hottest actor in Hollywood, Matin Weir, to play the role of the loan shark, but Weir is played by the short, aging Danny DeVito, thus humorously undercutting the character's threatening demeanor.
The movie is an assemblage of dialogue-heavy scenes and humor in contrasts: it depicts the terminally cool Chili watching old movies like "Touch of Evil" with wide-eyed wonder, gangsters hoping to force themselves into Hollywood movie-making, producers trying to force themselves into the gangster business, and a tough stunt man-turned mobster with a heart of gold.
The movie is produced by Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, the executive producers of "Pulp Fiction," but this time around, the funky humor seems pleasantly appropriate rather than forced and intentionally "outrageous" in the face of violence as it did in "Pulp Fiction." Part of the reason is that "Get Shorty" is directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the star cinematographer of movies like "Raising Arizona" and "Throw Momma From the Train," who has moved on to directing silly comedies like "The Addams Family." Unlike Tarantino, Sonnenfeld isn't trying to prove he's a Great Director provoking the audience, he's simply out to make a snappy, offbeat crime comedy. By not pretending he's offering anything more than derivative laughs, Sonnenfeld transposes Leonard's witty repartee to the screen with stylistic ease.
Travolta has obviously found a comfortable niche for himself after floundering in an eclectic variety of roles throughout the '80s and early '90s. Chili is a continuation of his character from "Pulp Fiction," dressed in black, packing a gun, and arguing with rhetorical ease about trivial subjects like the difference between "i.e." and "e.g." Somehow, it seems we'll see Travolta in similar roles for quite a while.
The rest of the cast, from Rene Russo's sarcastic quips to Gene Hackman's subtle impressions of ill-focused determination and Hollywood greed, perform well, catching the right mark between sincerity and self-parody.
Despite its familiar elements and scenes reminiscent of "Pulp Fiction," "Get Shorty" provides a lively compilation of Elmore Leonard-style plotting and charismatic performances. It's not exactly a Hollywood satire on the level of "The Player," but it's desire to not take itself too seriously is a welcome addition to the jaunty crime genre we'll be seeing for some time to come.
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