I can’t be cool like Chili Palmer, and neither can you. No one can, so don’t even try. Chili doesn’t just embody cool — he defines cool. He’s so cool, in other words, that he can take something uncool and make it cool just by deigning to be associated with it. Like Be Cool — though I hasten to add that I’m not suggesting that Be Cool is anything other than cool from the get-go. It’s a Hollywood paradox: Be Cool is cool because it’s about Chili, but it wouldn’t be about Chili if Chili deemed it beneath his notice — if there was no possibility of cool to be found in it, then Chili would have nothing to do with it. There’s a Nobel Prize to be had in the exploration of this kind of pop-culture quantum physics, if only Stockholm cared about the important stuff.
This Moebius-strip movie is cool like Chili, in fact: it says, in so many unspoken words, that since this is what it is going to be about, then this is what’s cool. And the magical thing is that that kind of — what, self-hypnosis? force of personality? — actually works. Be Cool is cool.
If that’s a tad too self-referential for your taste, then you’ll probably want to steer clear of Be Cool, cuz this one is for those of us who like a smirking self-awareness in our cool movies. “Ehhh, sequels,” says Chili, as his own sequel opens, and it’s funny cuz it doesn’t linger on the smirking self-awareness — like, instead of having someone point out that you can’t do a movie where you kill the main character in the first scene before a (potential) main character dies in the first scene, the movie does that after he’s dead (never fear: it’s not Chili). Anyway, Chili, mobster-turned-movie producer, has decided he’s had enough of movies, mostly because he got screwed on a sequel to the Martin Weir (Danny DeVito: Big Fish, Duplex) movie he produced in Get Shorty (but he’d love Be Cool, even though it is a sequel). Now, with the same hardheaded naivete he brought to film — how hard could it be? — he decides to take on the music biz. And he cuts right through the industry bullshit — i.e., the phony “cool” — with all the serene charm that John Travolta (A Love Song for Bobby Long, Ladder 49) can muster… which is quite a lot. You can’t not love Travolta’s smooth, sleek Chili — you never want to get on his bad side, but geez, if you could be his friend, he’d take ya far with him.
Like Linda Moon (Christina Milian: Man of the House), the adorable and talented singer he spots in a nightclub and decides, then and there, to make her a star — though part of it comes from a certain loyalty and obligation he feels toward music producer/label honcho Edie Athens (Uma Thurman: Kill Bill: Volume 2, Paycheck), for complicated reasons that involve the dead (potential) main character from the first scene. It’s like with the running-joke hybrid electric car he gets lumbered with at the beginning of the movie. In certain geeky circles, hybrid cars are very cool, but not in Chili’s — he’s a Cadillac man, and when his Caddy gets shot up by Russian mobsters and the rental guy brings him that little silver Jetsons space buggy, the look of dismay and disdain on Chili’s face is hilarious. But this is a man who doesn’t just make the best of a bad situation — he makes sure everyone else knows that this “bad” situation is one that everyone who cares about status wants to be in, too. And it’s the same with Linda — though I hasten to add that I’m not suggesting that there’s anything about Linda that’s bad, except that’s she’s stuck with a louse of a manager, Raji, who’s got her tied up in a criminally long contract.
Sure, there’s all the great music and the big, funny cameo by Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and the small, funny performance by rapper André Benjamin (Hollywood Homicide) as a gangsta, but this really is a movie about what it means to be cool. See, Raji, as played by the sublime Vince Vaughn (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story) — in a role that finally takes advantage of his smart talent — is a sarcastic sendup of those who think you can wear “cool” like a wardrobe. He thinks he’s a gangbanger, with his oversize velour running suits and shiny bling and extensive vocabulary of urban slang. But he doesn’t know the meaning of the word “cool,” and all the demos by Chili simply don’t penetrate his thick, uncool skull. (Like, I could have been using “sez” instead of “says” throughout this review thingie, but then I would have been sad like Raji instead of cool like myself, which is not like Chili’s kind of cool. I could never be cool like Chili. I can only be cool like myself. Then again, I’ve been using “cuz,” so maybe I’m hopeless after all.) Vaughn’s rarely been better.
And ditto the rest of the terrific cast, including The Rock (Walking Tall, The Rundown), playing hilariously against type as a gay bodyguard/aspiring actor — the Rock avoids stereotypes to find a genuine sweetness in his character, and who’da thunk he could really act?
In every way, Be Cool is no embarrassment to Get Shorty (partly thanks to the provenance of both films: Elmore Leonard novels) — the new one is as clever and as sly as the old one, one of my favorite films of recent years… and how wonderful is it to find a sequel that doesn’t ruin the original for you? By the time Travolta and Thurman reunite on the dance floor, Pulp Fiction style, to groove to a sexy tune, Be Cool has reached the epitome of movie cool.