ON STREAMING | January 10, 2022

Get Shorty: A Loan Shark's Hollywood Dreams   

John Travolta and Gene Hackman in 1995's "Get Shorty."

I loved being in Get Shorty’s alluring if dangerous world, even though I’m not sure where in it I could comfortably occupy myself. (John Travolta and Gene Hackman in 1995's Get Shorty.)

Adam Driver, Lady Gaga, and Al Pacino in 2021's House of Gucci.

W

hen Chili Palmer (John Travolta), the cool loan shark anti-hero of Get Shorty (1995), breaks into the home of B-movie actress Karen Flores (Rene Russo) one evening, he doesn’t anticipate this unsolicited visit to go that differently from his countless other debt-collection drop-bys.

It’s business as usual for the first few minutes. Lounging in the living room decoratively watching an episode of The Late Show with David Letterman

Palmer waits for his target — Flores’ film-producer boyfriend Harry Zimm (a charismatically sleazy Gene Hackman) — to come downstairs from the bedroom so that he can let out his manicured spiel whose fundamental message is, if you don’t pay              by         /         /          , I will rough you up. His threatening tranquility extends to the tip of the cigarette dangling between his fingers; his friendly smile seems like a snarl’s first evolutionary step. 
 

When Palmer is leaving a little while later, though, the mercilessness has subsided. He has with him a couple of things he didn’t when he snuck in: a new friend (turns out he and Zimm get along really well, debt aside) and a new aspiration to trade a life of crime for one in the movies. When the conversation drifts from Flores’ living room to her kitchen table, Palmer pitches a premise he thinks would make for a great movie to Zimm. (It’s based on a wild story involving exploding planes and faked deaths he dealt with firsthand on the job.) Zimm says with a grin that he thinks Palmer has something — a reception that sparks lifelong cinephile Palmer, whose vocational skill isn’t synonymous with a love for it, in a way he hasn't in years.
 

Get Shorty is centrally about Palmer’s Hollywood coming-of-age. But the convolutions and side characters that tend to it are plentiful to the point of distraction, to the point that you’re not always thinking about how Palmer is learning and growing. The movie can put you in mind of a seductively maze-like film akin to The Big Sleep (1946), which loves introducing new characters and following them down the proverbial roads they stand in front of. In Get Shorty, you get quickly attached to its sure-of-himself protagonist (Travolta makes you love this charmer) and could relay the basic gist of what he’s after and coming up against. But you’re also so instinctually bewildered by the labyrinth that forms around him and his ambitions that you realize the viewing experience will improve if you learn to settle into all the clutter — appreciate the atmosphere it creates — rather than try to set it all straight. 
 

The film isn’t so much about trying to tell a good story as it is about unmooring you in Palmer’s world (he lives in Miami but becomes an L.A. transplant) full of slick operators who want something from him or someone adjacent to him in an either parasitic or symbiotic sense. The criminal landscape in which he's so long been moving around isn’t all that much different than show business when all is said and done. (Get Shorty gets right the lure of Hollywood while abrading the corrupted mechanics that can prop up that lure.) Palmer just might be a natural when it finally comes time to prove himself on a set. 
 

There are no slick operators in Get Shorty I didn’t get a kick out of: Palmer’s huffy boss pissed off about his best debt collector’s Hollywood distractibility (Dennis Farina); a limo-business owner-slash-drug dealer whom Zimm owes big that has moviemaking dreams of his own (Delroy Lindo); a ponytailed stuntman turned bodyguard named Bear whose bluster is no match for Palmer’s in-control strut (James Gandolfini); a merry widow who practically kicks down Zimm’s door ready to seduce him (Bette Midler), a black lingerie set teased underneath her kitschy snow-leopard coat. 
 

Danny DeVito is a comic knockout as the big-time actor Martin Weir — billboards thunderously announce this two-time Oscar nominee’s upcoming turn as Napoleon Bonaparte — whom Zimm and Palmer think could be blackmailed to play the lead in Palmer’s burgeoning pet project. (Maybe it won’t be so bad, Palmer assures himself, because when Orson Welles was starring in and directing 1958’s Touch of Evil he also was being made to do something he didn’t want and ended up with something great.) The movie’s funniest scene might be the one where Palmer, Flores in tow, heads to Weir’s ostentatious self-portrait-littered mansion across the street from George Hamilton’s house to talk the film. They wind up doing an extended acting lesson where Palmer helps Weir master the art of the intimidating stare.

I

loved being in Get Shorty’s alluring if dangerous world, even though I’m not sure where in it I could comfortably occupy myself. Director Barry Sonnenfeld turns up the hues of his colors and dresses up sets just so so that we feel like we’re living in a kind of hyperreal noir fantasy. And the

preservation of the recognizably eccentric tough-guy dialogue cooked up by the Elmore Leonard novel on which the film is based (translated for the screen by Scott Frank) certifies that even if we couldn’t totally summarize the key points of every individual discussion had in the film, the dialogue encompassing a given discussion is so beautiful to the ear — pulp heaven — that you don’t mind if the whole exchange is a bit of a protracted sweet nothing. It’s all the better for safeguarding Leonard’s funny peculiarities: a long tangent about a stolen $379 leather jacket Al Pacino wore in 1973’s Serpico; the many allusions to the B-movie world of which Zimm is the king, with titles like “Grotesque” and “Wolfeaters Part II” rounding out his chintzy oeuvre. 

 

Get Shorty is such a breezy movie that even the violence has a levity. The Farina character’s perennially broken, healed, then re-broken nose becomes something of a sight gag. When a character trips down a flight of stairs at a restaurant it plays like slapstick; their reason for losing their balance reminds you a little of something you’d see on Jackass. Just after Palmer has beat up Bear in a parking garage, the two engage immediately afterward in an enthusiastic, all-smiles conversation about what movies the latter has done stunt work in. When Bear says he’s done about 60, Palmer can’t help but light up. From a handful of scenes but especially this one, you can tell how fit for Hollywood Palmer will probably be once all the hoops are jumped through to get him his first producing gig. The flair with which he can aggressively assert his dominance and then pivot into genuine-seeming flattery is both impressive and a little scary. A-