Welcome Back, Palmer: Travolta Returns in Be Cool

Be Cool can be considered a sequel to Get Shorty (1995), even though 10 years have passed since the adaptation of that earlier Elmore Leonard novel.

In the meantime, there have been changes in the directors (F. Gary Gray for Barry Sonnenfeld), screenwriters (Peter Steinfeld for Scott Frank) and leading ladies (Uma Thurman for René Russo). In fact, among the cast there’s been an almost complete turnover from Get Shorty. The more crucial of the two holdovers is John Travolta in the starring role of Chili Palmer, a former loan shark from Miami trying to go legit, first in the crooked L.A. movie business in Get Shorty, and now in the crooked L.A. music business in Be Cool.

The other holdover from Get Shorty is congenitally downbeat producer-actor Danny DeVito, who seems to have come along for the ride in a virtual cameo role as the same oddball movie star he played in the earlier film. But gone are such entertainingly roguish talents as Gene Hackman, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo, James Gandolfini, David Paymer, Martin Ferrero and Miguel Sandoval. In their place have come a new crop of amusingly tongue-in-cheek ba-a-a-ad guys, most notably Vince Vaughn, Cedric the Entertainer, André Benjamin, Robert Pastorelli, Harvey Keitel and The Rock.

Adding extensive musical backup to Be Cool is recording artist Christina Milian as Linda Moon, Chili’s great discovery, and Linda’s on-screen benefactor, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, who plays himself with a certain degree of guarded narcissism. Ms. Thurman’s character, Edie Athens, even has “Aerosmith” tattooed on her rump, a memento of her years as a non-groupie “laundress” to the group-clearly a euphemism to facilitate her emergence as Chili’s love interest once her husband, Tommy Athens (an unbilled James Woods), who is also her partner in a failing record label, is gunned down by the Russian Mafia early in the film. As Bobby Clark once remarked at a particularly tangled moment in a freewheeling Broadway revival of Victor Herbert’s Sweethearts, “Never was a thin plot so complicated.”

As you may suspect by now, I wasn’t as impressed with Be Cool-despite all its energy and expertise-as I was with Get Shorty. For one thing, the music business is less interesting (at least to me) and even more unsavory than the movie business. For another, the film’s “humor” is too dependent on the flaunting of guns by the droopy-jeans “posse” that accompanies rap mogul Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer) wherever he goes.

Still, a compensating factor is Vince Vaughn’s Raji, a hilarious 10-strike. Mr. Vaughn’s hip-hop-inspired white boy impersonating a black pimp is highly amusing as he becomes more and more immersed in this counterfeit existence. Even here, however, Raji’s “girls” are not prostitutes, but singers under contract to perform without hanky-panky at a nightclub owned by the mobbed-up record promoter Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel).

Raji’s gay tough-guy bodyguard, Elliot Wilhelm (The Rock), gets more than his share of laughs with his childlike susceptibility to compliments about his performing potential, based on his trick of flashing a prodigiously raised eyebrow.

A more somber note is struck when Robert Pastorelli, who achieved wide recognition as Eldin Bernecky, Candice Bergen’s seemingly steady house-painter confidante in the hit CBS (and Dan Quayle–enraging) feminist series Murphy Brown, appears as Joe Loop, the ill-fated hit man in Be Cool. Pastorelli died on March 8, 2004, at the age of 49.

Don’t get me wrong: Be Cool is hardly chopped liver in today’s artistically becalmed movie marketplace. There are too many versatile talents involved on both sides of the camera for any excessively harsh judgment to be applied to this very marginal misfire. The 80-year-old Mr. Leonard, for example, who provided the novel on which the movie is based as well as his services as an experienced executive producer, has had a career spanning five decades, 40 novels, dozens of short stories and many screenplays, and is a vital force in the artistic evolution of the cinema’s often critically undervalued action genres.

Similarly, Mr. DeVito has contributed in several capacities to add a steady dose of vinegar to a too-often saccharine-saturated assembly line. Finally, Mr. Travolta employs his own versatility with action movies and farces, melodramas and musicals, hero parts and villain parts, to rise and fall and rise again in the industry with remarkable tenacity and resilience. In the process, he’s been tagged as the perennial comeback kid.

Still, Mr. Travolta (who is now 50) and Ms. Thurman (at 35) must be looking nervously over their shoulders at a youth-crazed industry and a youth-crazed country. In Mr. Travolta’s first comeback epiphany, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), the 40-year-old star and the 25-year-old Ms. Thurman stepped onto a dance floor with all the verve and sass of two impressively self-confident performers. Ten years later, in Be Cool, they get on the dance floor reluctantly in the midst of a hip-hop extravaganza, and Mr. Gray, a former music-video director, can’t seem to decide whether or not to make these comparative oldsters the center of attention-at the risk of alienating the kids in the audience, who undoubtedly think that the Bee Gees are a new brand of men’s underwear. After all, John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977) is more than a quarter of a century old. After a few tentative close-dancing maneuvers, Chili and Edie slink off the dance floor with no one paying much attention. In 10 years, Mr. Travolta’s dance arena has become generationally afflicted with spasms of hesitation and indifference.

Indeed, for the scene in which Edie and Chili meet while she’s sun-bathing in a bikini by her pool, a body double was reportedly recruited to give Chili’s voyeuristic rear-view take a more sensual zing. Still, for the sake of grown-up talents like Mr. Leonard and Mr. DeVito, I hope Be Cool will do spectacularly well at the box-office.

Oscar Fatigue

In all the years that I’ve been aware of the Oscars, I cannot remember a time in which there was so much anticipatory schadenfreude, so much paranoid petulance and so much sheer accentuation of the negative as this year. We were also forewarned that the television ratings would be low this year because of the absence of blockbusters like Titanic and Gladiator among the nominees. At the same time, conservative commentators worked themselves into a tizzy over the perceived endorsement of assisted suicide in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. Other people on the right expressed concern that the evening’s first-time host, the notoriously uninhibited Chris Rock, might say something unseemly about George W. Bush, while their counterparts on the left feared that the censorious four-second delay would prevent audiences from hearing these anti-Bush remarks, if indeed they were allowed to be uttered. Reports circulated about how Robin Williams had already been muzzled by ABC after proposing a satirical bit in which he would lampoon recent homophobic comments directed at SpongeBob SquarePants for allegedly promoting gay fraternization. (He ended up performing the bit, which turned out to be very funny). Consequently, I approached the evening not with any trepidation, but rather a fatalism born of long experience that promised three hours of laborious anticlimax.

Each year, the red-carpet preliminaries become more tedious. The time gap between Los Angeles and New York produces the bizarre spectacle of a horde of overdressed celebrities parading about in broad daylight as if it were nighttime. To my inexpert, fashion-untutored eyes, the ladies seemed to be bosomy and more brightly colored than usual. Kate Winslet seemed unusually ebullient for an almost-certain loser in the Best Actress category, and Hilary Swank seemed prophetically triumphant in the evening’s most daring fashion statement, a virtually backless creation that seemed to swoop as she moved forward. In approaching predicted victory and defeat, respectively, both Cate Blanchett and Annette Bening remained extraordinarily gracious.

As the proceedings began, everyone, including Mr. Rock, looked as if they were walking on eggshells. The first order of business inside the Kodak Theater auditorium was a short montage of cinematic moments narrated by a painfully earnest Dustin Hoffman. It was as if the Academy were attempting to resell the concept of moviemaking because of their shrinking audience. The last image of the promotion was of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp walking away from us with Shrek by his side, both strolling with the trademark Chaplin pigeon-toed gait. The intention was clear: catch the new generations of audiences for our venerable but still vital entertainment.

When Mr. Rock himself materialized front and center, his demeanor was defiantly assertive, as if to say that he wasn’t all that intimidated by the advance speculation about what (and how well) he would perform. He was greeted with a standing ovation which went on so surprisingly long that Mr. Rock tried to tamp down the applause with his own patented gangsta vulgarity: “Get yo asses back in yo seats,” or something to that effect. And then a curious thing happened: Despite this early sign that the audience was already in his pocket, Mr. Rock launched into a mostly witless monologue in which he harangued the predominantly anti-Bush audience, first with an MTV/Comedy Central–level sermon to the converted on the failings of George Bush, and then on the perceived idiocies of the movie business in not waiting until “real” stars were available for movies. “Clint Eastwood is a real star,” Mr. Rock asserted. “Toby Maguire is just a kid in a Spider-Man costume.” In today’s Hollywood, the 74-year-old Mr. Eastwood had trouble getting financing for his low-budget Oscar winner, Million Dollar Baby, whereas Mr. Maguire is still a “hot” commodity after his box-office smash with Spider-Man 2. Mr. Rock went on to exhort moviemakers to “wait for Tom Cruise” and not rush into production with Jude Law, whom Mr. Rock proceeded to insult at such great length that much later in the evening, Sean Penn scolded Mr. Rock for his Law-bashing, for which he was, in turn, criticized by Roger Ebert and others for lacking a sense of humor. You just can’t win on Oscar night. I happened to have agreed with Mr. Penn’s complaint, but I still wondered what Mr. Rock was driving at. Was it that only movies with certified movie stars-of whom there are only four or five, by Mr. Rock’s count-should ever see the light of day?

Later in the evening, Mr. Rock atoned for his catatonia-inducing monologue with a hilarious critique of the Academy’s speeded-up shuttle system to get the winners of minor awards out of the audience’s sight more quickly. Next year, Mr. Rock declared, the minor awards would be dispensed in the parking lot with the motors running on the cars of the winners. Less felicitous was his “visit” to a neighboring multiplex, where he interviewed several African-American moviegoers on what they’d seen recently. White Chicks was the most popular choice, and no one said they’d seen Million Dollar Baby, The Aviator or Finding Neverland. I wondered why he didn’t ask them if they’d seen Hotel Rwanda or even Ray. The point is that Mr. Rock had himself bought into the pre-Oscar gossip that the Oscar nominees simply were not popular enough to attract a large enough audience to the televised awards. His own presence as host was proof of the Academy’s desperation on this state of affairs.

As for the awards themselves, there wasn’t a single surprise in any of the major categories. For once, the conventional wisdom was correct: All through the night, as one minor award after another went to The Aviator, the name of director Martin Scorsese resounded throughout the auditorium, as if to exorcise the demons of denial enlisted on behalf of the inevitably victorious triumvirate of Mr. Eastwood, Ms. Swank and Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby. The irony was intensified when Sidney Lumet, fittingly introduced by Al Pacino, accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award as delayed compensation for not having received a competitive Oscar during his long and distinguished career. My own theory about why Mr. Lumet and Mr. Scorsese have been denied for so long is that both are now and always have been too New York–oriented for the L.A.-oriented Academy. Ah, skeptics may say, then why has an ultra-provincial anti-Angeleno New Yorker like Woody Allen done so well with the Oscars? I think that’s because there is no one quite like him in Hollywood, whereas Mr. Lumet and Mr. Scorsese have competed more in the serious mainstream of filmmaking.

When Mr. Scorsese introduced Roger Mayer for the now only occasionally presented Jean Hersholt Award, attention was drawn to Mr. Scorsese’s great services to the cinema as a film scholar and film preservationist. As I watched Marty at this painful moment, I could feel that he knew the game was up for 2005. For once, all the major acceptance speeches were more than adequate to the occasion, escaping the extremes of maudlinism and mock modesty. I was gratified by the astute choices of The Sea Inside as the Best Foreign-Language Film and Born into Brothels as the Best Documentary Feature. And I sincerely hope that Jamie Foxx had that dream conversation with his supportive, now-departed grandmother after he fell asleep that night.

One final suggestion for next year’s Oscars: Hire Robin Williams as the full-time host and let him run wild for three hours. Now that would be a night to remember.