Get Shorty

1995, Movie, R, 105 mins


A decade ago, who would have bet a fin that New Jersey working-class Cool would come to define the pop aesthetic of fin de siecle America? On screen and in the video store -- where PULP FICTION has been the No. 1 rental for weeks on end -- the comic-book hulk heroes of the '80s have been supplanted by a legion of suburban hipsters. Hence the truly welcome '90s resurrection of that quintessential son of the Garden State, Englewood's John Travolta.

In director Barry Sonnenfeld's gracefully light GET SHORTY, Travolta is Chili Palmer, a Miami-based debt collector for the mob who gets a bad case of the movie-producing bug while visiting Los Angeles. Chili's no garden-variety mug. On the contrary, Travolta plays him as the New Sensitive Gangster: He listens. He responds to conflict by illuminating the path of rational self-interest for all parties.

When Chili breaks into your split-level and settles down to watch a little Letterman, knowing you'll soon be padding downstairs in your pjs, he comes to enforce. But he remains in touch with his own desire for self-actualization and open to new business opportunities. It isn't entirely that he's caught in the downsizing economy. He's groping his way toward a second career that builds on his fund-raising skills -- and that turns out to be the making of the movie we watch, GET SHORTY.

In an otherwise moderately inspired adventure based on Leonard's 1990 novel, Travolta cements the Hollywood comeback he was handed with PULP FICTION. And he shows his gratitude by playing the last person left in America who likes L.A. As Chili reasons, "What's the point of living in L.A. and not being in the movie business?" Even if he seems to reconsider his view somewhat later -- "Rough business, this movie business. Think I'll go back to loan-sharking and take a rest" -- it's the satire of a pig who's found his pen.

Chili drops into town and promptly gets the lay of the land: Rene Russo as a washed-up sci-fi starlet who has no difficulty conveying that she's seen and heard it all (till now, at any rate). They hook up with sleazeball producer Harry Zimm, a cross between Sam Arkoff and Herschell Gordon Lewis played by Gene Hackman, whose nervous comedy is perfect counterpoint to Travolta. As a pygmy movie star with a gigantic ego, Danny DeVito is better used here than anywhere since TIN MEN. And who better than one of my favorites, human beagle David Paymer, to play a dry cleaner gone renegade in Vegas?

GET SHORTY's assortment of lowlifes and high rollers is a familiar one, but it's still deeply satisfying. This Hollywood is the one we want to believe exists: no film school snots here, no MBA's, no dock-worker philosophers-turned-screenwriters. Just a town full of second-rate swindlers where a clear-eyed racketeer can keep his eye on the ball and rise.

Which might be exactly what Travolta has managed to do in real life. Quietly, among the bad guys who are really the good guys in a world that is far darker than any neo film noir, Travolta now stands at the center of things -- a long way from Englewood, N.J. leave a comment --Harlan Jacobson

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