In a fall movie season that has shuttled between the dark (Seven, Clockers) and the drab (The Scarlet Letter, To Wong Foo.), audiences have every right to be juiced at the prospect of Get Shorty (United Artists, R), a cracklingly energized adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1990 crime-caper novel. Fast, punchy, and debauched, Leonard’s writing is pulp fiction at its most adrenaline charged. His characters are hardboiled eggs who never cool down — wickedly loquacious put-on artists who keep pushing scams in each other’s faces.
The film version of Get Shorty is, like the book, a rapid-fire comic thriller set on the fault line between the gangster business and the movie business. The fun of the picture is listening to the hot-off-the-brain patter of thugs who talk like showbiz pros (and Hollywood slicks who act like criminals). Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who made the Addams Family films, Get Shorty finds a broad equivalent to Leonard’s propulsive-trash style in its bright, gaudy color scheme, its salsa-inflected pop score, and its hell-bent narrative momentum, which keeps Leonard’s relentless chain of twists twisting right up through the closing credits. The movie, too, has a wonderfully sleek hero in John Travolta, who plays Chili Palmer, the Miami loan shark-turned-would-be movie investor, with the same impervious brashness that made him such a spit-polish charmer in Pulp Fiction. For all that, Get Shorty never quite catches fire in the way I wanted it to. Its pleasures are genuine, but they remain stubbornly on the surface.
The movie features a joker’s deck of hungry desperadoes. Chili, having broken the nose of Ray ”Bones” Barboni (Dennis Farina), is ordered to locate one of Ray’s welshers, a loser (David Paymer) who faked his own death in a plane crash and is living high off the insurance payment. Chili tracks him to Vegas, where he is led to bigger game: a schlock Hollywood producer named Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), who after a decade of churning out grade-Z monstrosities thinks he’s found his ticket to respectability, a script called Mr. Lovejoy that he needs 500 grand to purchase. What makes the script so valuable? It has attracted the attention of Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), a sawed-off Hollywood superstar — he’s currently topping the box office in Napoleon — who may be interested in starring in it. Seduced by the easy glamour of the movie business, Chili figures he’ll worm his way in by helping Harry. He teams up with Karen Flores (Rene Russo), an acerbic starlet who used to be married to Martin. And he tries to muscle out Harry’s drug-dealing investor, Bo (Delroy Lindo), who wants in on the Mr. Lovejoy deal, too. Toss in an airport locker crammed with drug loot that’s being watched by the feds, and you’ve got a plot dizzy with temptation.
The great joke of Travolta’s performance is that Chili, in his cool black duds, is as much of a put-on artist as anyone he meets in Los Angeles. He never has to threaten people (the threat is always implied), and Travolta, reveling in this poker-faced hipster’s casual mastery, lets us feel the joy of an actor playing an actor. The best scene in the movie is the one in which Chili faces DeVito’s infantile egomaniac and teaches him how to duplicate a loan shark’s deadly stare. (You watch the scene and think, Who’s fooling whom?) Travolta holds Get Shorty together. Yet as translated from the page by Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Scott Frank, the other characters are so thin that their encounters begin to seem weightless. Hackman plays Harry as a cartoon huckster without really bringing out his undercurrent of desperation. And though I bought Chili’s desire to be part of the movie business, when Delroy Lindo’s Bo (who’s defined by little more than a suave scowl) reveals the exact matching ambition, the joke becomes overdeliberate and synthetic. DeVito reins in his hamminess, but why cast him as a satire of a capricious Hollywood leading man? The only movie star Danny DeVito even begins to signify is…Danny DeVito.
There’s enough that’s fun in Get Shorty to make complaining about it seem churlish. As a thriller, the movie is more imaginative than a sodden Chandler knockoff like Devil in a Blue Dress, and it’s nice to see that Travolta’s comeback is no fluke. Yet Elmore Leonard’s writing, in all its lurid disreputability, has a more urgent core than this film’s fluorescent-bright high jinks would suggest. His characters are nasty, and that’s the key to their appeal. In the movie, they’re just tough cookies acting a little goofier than usual.