In colorful, stylized fashion, opening scenes establish the behavioral parameters of Chili’s sleazy milieu: Jumping quickly from Miami to Brooklyn to Vegas to L.A., Scott Frank’s nimble screenplay adaptation introduces a set of almost farcically decked-out gangsters of assorted middle rank and exaggerated phraseology who have a sense of humor but can definitely turn the screws when needed.
Chili arrives on the coast to collect a $ 150,000 gambling debt from Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), a Z-movie producer of such classics as “Grotesque” and the “Slime People” series whose sensibility and wardrobe remain stuck in the ’70s. Outfitted with bellbottoms, gold chains and a protruding bridge of upper teeth, Zimm is a perpetual showbiz wannabe, with a grubby office on Hollywood Boulevard and success that’s always one picture away.
Lucky for him, then, that the man sent to rough him up and collect is a movie fan whose dream is to leave “the life” and run a revival house that would show James Cagney films. Seeing Zimm as his possible doorman to Hollywood, Chili pitches him an idea, and a new producing team is born. As one character observes , “I don’t think the producer needs to know much.”
But Chili has competition in the thug-turned-mogul field, notably in the person of Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo), to whom Zimm also owes big money. Then there’s the matter of Leo Devoe (David Paymer), a small-timer who has absconded with a $ 300,000 insurance payoff intended for big boss Ray “Bones” Barboni (Dennis Farina). Loot’s presence in a heavily watched LAX luggage locker, and various characters’ attempts to spring it, reps the film’s wonderfully escalating running gag.
But plot mechanics play second fiddle to the smart goofy humor generated by the collision of these oddball characters. Chili and Catlett, two lowlifes with suddenly sprouted showbiz ambitions, share a fine scene in which they disdain the effort it will take to rewrite Zimm’s script, and Catlett astutely asks at one point, “What’s the point of living in L.A. unless you’re in the movie business?”
Best of all is a visit by Chili and scream queen Karen Flores (Rene Russo) to latter’s ex-husband, screen superstar Martin Weir (Danny DeVito). Ostensibly there to convince him to appear in his picture, nonpro Chili ends up giving the thesp a funny lesson in acting and how to project attitude. DeVito is sharp in the scene, but Travolta lays down a royal flush with the type of turn that only a very self-confident, charismatic star can pull off.
Hackman also scores as the fast-talking schlockmeister who bids to turn financial misfortune to his advantage, and Farina and Lindo are just the first among many character actors who get to shine here. Russo is mostly along for the ride in this otherwise male-dominated world. Bette Midler juices things up nicely in something more than a cameo, while the similarly unbilled Harvey Keitel and Penny Marshall pop up briefly.
Despite the fairly intricate plotting, pic stays afloat thanks mainly to its scene-by-scene amusement quotient rather than because of any sustaining suspense or sense that anything’s at stake. Director Barry Sonnenfeld establishes a distinctive tone and connects with the author’s eccentric sense of humor, but doesn’t manage to build to any dramatic highs. Action is all on the same plane, leaving the viewer with the feeling that it’s been a nice ride but didn’t go that far.
Slick behind-the-scenes contributions add up to an attractive package, with Peter Larkin’s production design evincing a keen appreciation of the different strata of Hollywood life, and Betsy Heimann’s costumes shrewdly differentiating the characters’ positions on the ladder of success. Chili’s film buff credentials are established via key clips from “Touch of Evil” and “Rio Bravo.”