Be Cool

Movie Information

Genre: Post-Modern Gangster Comedy
Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Vince Vaughn, Cedric the Entertainer, The Rock, Christina Milian
Rated: PG-13

I spent the bulk of Be Cool thinking that I’d never seen a more badly structured film, nor one so completely — and with so little reason — convinced of its own coolness. All the while, I knew that I shouldn’t enjoy what I was watching — but still I did, partly because of the film’s actual merits and partly because of its sheer oddness.

As a movie, this is really an indefensible mess, having more in common with the last adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, The Big Bounce, than with its ostensible parent film, Get Shorty. If you don’t remember The Big Bounce, don’t feel bad — if you blinked, you missed its brief stint in theaters. That film was also messy, but not as messy as Be Cool, which is so concerned with trying to live up to its title that everything else gets shunted aside.

John Travolta returns as loan-shark-turned-movie-producer Chili Palmer. After being conned into making a sequel to his hit film, he’s grown sour on the movie industry and is thinking of a career change — to the music industry. The opportunity to do just this presents itself when his sleazy record-producer friend, Tommy Athens (guest star James Woods), gets gunned down by a spectacularly inept Russian gangster with a bad wig. Tommy’s not much of a loss. The script telegraphs this point when Chili asks how Tommy’s wife is, only to be asked, “Edie? Who gives a s**t?” Subtle, this movie ain’t.

Edie turns out to be none other than Uma Thurman, with an Aerosmith tattoo on the small of her back (wait a minute, it’s part of the plot). With the death of her scummy husband, she inherits NTL (Nothing To Lose) Records, which, it turns out, is not only bereft of funds, but $300,000 in the hole to Ivy League-educated gangsta rap record producer Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer). Chili’s plan — to the degree it’s ever made clear — is to save the company by making a star out of Linda Moon (Christina Milian, Love Don’t Cost a Thing). The idea, however, is complicated by the fact that her contract is held by another low-life producer, Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel), and his associate, Raji (Vince Vaughn), neither of whom is predisposed to release her, despite the fact that she hardly seems a valuable asset.

No matter. All these convoluted incidents that stand in for a plot are basically inessential. Be Cool isn’t concerned with story. Instead, it’s concerned with parading its forced quirky characters across the screen — and with being cool.

Linda Moon isn’t much more than the Maguffin in a Hitchcock movie — the thing that everyone’s after. It doesn’t matter what it is. In this case, that’s a good thing, since there’s nothing terribly special about Linda and her talent, which is about on par with an American Idol contestant. The movie wants us to take it on faith that she’s the bee’s knees of vocalists, expecting us to be as impressed as is the cast (inexplicably) by the fact that she also writes the drivel she sings.

And since that’s pretty improbable, the film tries to distract us with the characters. How you respond to them depends on how long you can be amused by Vaughn posing as a representative of “thug life” and indulging in ghetto-speak, a la Jamie Kennedy in Malibu’s Most Wanted. And if that’s not sufficiently rib-tickling, there’s always Cedric the Entertainer speaking like a college professor. Pretty grim stuff.

On the other hand, The Rock scores nicely as Vaughn’s star-struck gay bodyguard, Elliot, who sees Chili as his ticket to becoming a movie star. His recitation of a scene from Bring It On (he thinks it’s a monologue, even though he has to “play” two characters) and his music video of Loretta Lynn’s “You Aren’t Woman Enough to Take Away My Man” are the best parts in the movie. His character works somewhat less well as part of the plot, since alternating between sucking up to and then assisting in attempts to kill Chili off is a mix that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Then again, this movie takes place in some kind of alternate universe where Chili can con Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler into dueting with Linda by claiming that the song, “Sweet Emotion,” was really about Tyler’s love for his daughter, Liv! This is done entirely without irony, even though Tyler would not have even known of his daughter’s existence at the time of the song.

There are two central problems with Be Cool: First, it reduces Chili Palmer to a laidback straight man with little to do other than look mildly amused at the antics of the peculiar characters who surround him. Second, the film tries too hard to build damn near every gag on some kind of in-joke. Sure, we know that The Rock’s trademark is arching that eyebrow, but how much mileage can you get out of that being his acting specialty? Sure, getting Travolta and Uma Thurman out on the dance floor is going to evoke memories of their turn in Pulp Fiction — but so what? The cross-reference is made, and the joke just lies there and dies there, because not only is there nowhere for it to go, but the dance here redefines unmemorable.

But here’s the catch: There’s something goofily endearing about just how uncool Be Cool is, making this movie both utterly disposable and moderately entertaining. Rated PG-13 for violence, sensuality and language, including sexual references.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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