Prevailed upon, back in the day, to explain rhythm, the legendary jazzman Thomas ”Fats” Waller is reputed to have said, ”Lady, if you got to ask, you ain’t got it.” I offer this great moment in musicology in an attempt to distinguish between what’s hip and what ain’t in Be Cool, a winded, hardworking sequel to Barry Sonnenfeld’s nifty no-sweat 1995 comedy, Get Shorty. That earlier all-star tap dance on the fault line between low-life crime and high-concept Hollywood, you’ll recall, was a post?Pulp Fiction career gift to John Travolta, and he took full advantage of the role of swingin’ shylock Chili Palmer, the literary creation of L.A.-steeped genre master Elmore Leonard (via a cool screenplay by Scott Frank). Back then, Chili was a mobster?turned?movie mogul with an instinct for both rackets. Now he’s getting into L.A.’s dog-eat-dog music biz.
But it’s been a decade, baby, and times — not to mention the measure of how hard a studio movie’s gotta work to wow the room and earn back the above-the-line expenditure — have changed. Within the first few minutes, Chili (Travolta again, his tempo of laid-back, street-smart savoir faire now a strangely charming anachronism) is engaged in a smirky rib-nudger of a conversation, about the tackiness of making sequels, with a soon-to-be-offed semi-sleazeball record producer named Tommy Athens (James Woods). And, see, there — right there — is where Be Cool does not live up to the temperature of its title. Sequels, get it? We know this new, brand-name-heavy movie is a sequel; Travolta and Woods know that Chili and Tommy are characters in a sequel; we know that Travolta and Woods know that Chili and Tommy are in a sequel; and so on…right down the rabbit hole of self-congratulation and meta meaninglessness wherein one arrives at Ocean’s Thirteen.
The hell of it is, Be Cool is tepid entertainment that could be cool if it spent less time entertaining us as if we were demanding a definition of rhythm: This is a comedy that glorifies the ineffable ”it” quality of those in the know, yet relies on brand-name cultural identifiers (Charlie Rose, the Viper Room, American Beauty) and overexertions from its celebrity cast to drive home the joke that Chili’s new racket makes use of old instincts. Mobs, movies, music — Chili’s the dude, updated to the dawg.
On the plus side, the vibe between Travolta as Chili and Uma Thurman as Tommy’s luscious widow, Edie, is as splendiferous as it was when the two gleaming stars boogied for Quentin Tarantino 11 years ago. Edie, a dishy blonde with an ear for talent, is the reason Chili gets mixed up in the music scene at all, when he agrees to help her straighten out a business mess left behind by her dead husband, involving Russian mobsters and other assorted slime, including Harvey Keitel. There’s also a wall of gangsta rappers in her way, fronted by a thug-life producer (Cedric the Entertainer, full of gusto), with hapless backup from a trigger-happy lieutenant played, with breakout charm, by OutKast’s André Benjamin. Edie’s discovery, Linda Moon (Christina Milian), is no great shakes, a petite song-belter from the American Idol school of generic vocal fluttering and butt twitching. But Chili’s effect on Edie is a treat, culminating in a Pulp Fiction dance-floor reprise, this time in a sexier, Brazilian mode. It works. (Thurman still emits the glow of her Kill Bill triumphs, and she carries herself with joy.)
On the other side lie such hit-or-miss creations as Vince Vaughn’s Raji (real name: Roger Lowenthal), a white music mini-mogul with hip-hop threads and a loonlike giggle who’s only slightly more clued in than Ali G, and The Rock as Elliot, Raji’s much-baited gay bodyguard who really wants to be an actor. The misses have less to do with the talents of Vaughn (a riot, a glorious goofball) or The Rock (who appears to be a charming man) than with the clod-footedness of the characters apparently devised, in Peter Steinfeld’s script, primarily to amuse the hipster cast. Be Cool is directed by F. Gary Gray, who, for my money, can still dine out on the helium hilarity of his feature debut, Friday. But he appears to be stumped by what to do with all the hepcats milling around. ”He just does the one eyebrow,” someone says of Elliot, a cue for The Rock to do ”the one eyebrow” so we can remember, Hey, it’s The Rock. But by now, the trick is only lukewarm.