Get Shorty March 27, 2016
A dynamic thing good dialogue can be, and Get Shorty has a lot of it. A film with scores of characters and intersecting storylines, it’s a movie all about talk, swagger, and tone, a modern day The Big Sleep minus the noir atmosphere and whodunit, detective based divergences. To keep up with its labyrinthine bamboozles is about as difficult as being able to recite the alphabet backwards, but the film isn’t so much about substance as it is about attitude, and we could, to Get Shorty’s benefit, watch its characters converse for hours on end.
None of this is a surprise, though, as the film is an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel of the name same. Leonard, a Hollywood go-to for crime stories containing deep-seated caginess and wit, is a writer able to make even the lowest of a low life speak with a certain sort of fetching cool. He’s a Raymond Chandler for the modern world.
Get Shorty has a lot in common with Quentin Tarantino’s perpetually underrated Jackie Brown (also a Leonard modification), with its slick ways of complicated criminality, black humor, and appetizing character parts. And there’s nothing better, to my tastes, anyway, than a movie where dialogue is everything; it’s a rarity to really care about, and revel in, what characters have to say, to care more about the next confrontation, the next exchange, than a plot point bent to push everything forward.
It stars a Pulp Fiction-fresh John Travolta as Chili Palmer, an enviably confident loan shark whose sinful exploits (traveling everywhere from Miami to Brooklyn to Los Angeles to Las Vegas) eventually lead to Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), a successful B-movie producer who owes a massive gambling debt. As Palmer’s life mostly consists of threatening people in over their heads financially, he, at first, tries to pull the usual routine with Zimm; but Palmer is a big movie fan and a sucker for the glamour of Hollywood. Against the odds, he strikes up a friendship with the man he’s supposed to be scaring money out of, going so far as pitching a movie idea to him.
The film then stays put in Los Angeles, where Palmer very much becomes a part of Zimm’s life, and where his pitch might actually become reality. We’re soon introduced to Zimm’s girlfriend (Rene Russo), a B-movie scream queen with enough self-possession to make her more than just a big boss man’s hot thing, Bear (James Gandolfini), a low-key softy of a stuntman, and Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), a two-time Academy Award nominee who Zimm and company are trying to convince to star in their potential project. But, at the end of the day, Palmer is still a mobster, and transitioning his shady talents to moviemaking may not arrive as smoothly as he’d like.
Put everything together and Get Shorty is a smash of a blockbuster, unusually piquantly written and expertly performed. Released during a time where most comedy thrillers set out to be Pulp Fiction, incessantly complicated but also idiosyncratically cool, it continues its tradition of intriguing characters and terrifically funny sequences but stays individualistic. It is sturdy, wonderfully animated mainstream filmmaking, the kind of film we hardly want to end because it is so much a sizzling roller coaster of an experience. Sonnenfeld is the perfect director for this sort of material, dipping every scene in understated irony and visual attentiveness, and Travolta is phenomenally aplomb — this role was made for him. And I love the supporting performances, particularly from Russo (sexy and smart), Hackman (lovably slimy), Dennis Farina (hilariously unpredictable), and the uncredited Bette Midler (tunefully brassy).
Everything in Get Shorty is dextrous and competent — it’s popcorn entertainment that knows what it’s doing, felicitously intelligent but also shamelessly amusing. It’s a black comedy of the highest standard, and is certainly among the best (and there are many) Elmore Leonard adaptations. Seeing (and hearing) is believing, and you might even be inclined to view it alongside other Leonard conversions (Jackie Brown, Out of Sight) if you find yourself seduced by his way of devising parallel universes able to make crime a topic of appeal. A