Supreme hip crime fiction craftsman Elmore Leonard’s droll humor, wry dialogue and waggish characters made their smoothest transitions to screen in “Jackie Brown,” “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty.” Fronted — hot on the heels of “Pulp Fiction” — by a dazzlingly confident John Travolta, “Get Shorty,” about an underworld shylock out to conquer Hollywood, oozed cool from every scene. Ten years later, Travolta drifts lazily through “Be Cool,” a staggeringly flat sequel that trades filmdom for the music biz and could hardly be less cool. Reteaming of the star with Uma Thurman may pique interest but word of mouth looks to be ice cold.
Much as “Get Shorty” served up broad satire and farcical crime plotting that was unapologetically secondary to the foibles of its charismatic characters, director Barry Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Scott Frank displayed such an incisive feel for Leonard’s keen wit and funky style that the movie seemed like Lubitsch compared to this clumsy misfire.
Having already driven a roadworthy comic vehicle into a ditch in “Analyze That,” scripter Peter Steinfeld here delivers another witless sequel. It plays like protracted “Saturday Night Live” sketches glued onto a cheesy plot about hatching a singing star. And while director F. Gary Gray displayed real facility for the dynamics of breezy crime capers in “The Italian Job,” he shows a tin ear for the rhythms of comedy in “Be Cool.”
Opening with one of many glib insider jokes, Chili Palmer (Travolta) reveals his jadedness with studio sequels after scoring a hit as producer of “Get Leo” but a miss with “Get Lost.” Intrigued by the music business, he finds an in when a Russian mobster ices his friend Tommy Athens (James Woods), a former Brooklyn thug now running indie label NTL (Nothing to Lose) Records.
Chili hooks up with Tommy’s widow Edie (Thurman) to produce a debut album for talented singer Linda Moon (Christina Milian). That means busting Linda out of Chicks Intl., a ’70s cover band managed by pimpy poseur Raji (Vince Vaughn). A white guy who likes to think he’s black, Raji is all hip-hop attitude, bling-bling and vulgar designer-wear, a joke that wears thin almost instantly. Right behind it in comic durability is Raji’s gay Samoan bodyguard Elliot (The Rock), a wannabe actor whose main talent is arching one eyebrow.
Chili blithely deals with obstacles created when Raji orders a hit on him, a sleazy music kingpin Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) tries to edge him out of the business and NTL star producer Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer) and his gangsta posse come calling for the $300,000 the label owes them. Driving a fleet of Hummers and tucking chunky gold pistols in their high-rise boxers and low-rise jeans, the latter group — together with the black-dude attitudes of Raji and Nick — pushes the comedy into tired homeboy satire.
Chili is a smooth player who defuses tricky situations with his unflappable cool. But he can’t do anything but grin contentedly during the film’s big climactic scenes, which are set during an Aerosmith concert and a music awards show, suggesting Steinfeld saw “The Bodyguard” way too many times. Thurman is reduced to beatific arm candy while Milian barely exists as a character beyond her standard-issue “American Idol” songs.
Although always based more on hipster chic than sexual sizzle, whatever chemistry Travolta and Thurman mined in “Pulp Fiction” has evaporated. Their dance to “Sexy,” played onscreen by the Black Eyed Peas and Sergio Mendez, seems like a rote revisitation of their “You Never Can Tell” twist.
The cast glitters in isolated moments but mostly displays an understandable lack of conviction in the material. Even potentially amusing spiels like Sin’s rant about black culture fall flat in the context of an under-energized comedy running two laborious hours, in which the timing is consistently off.
A number of well-known faces turn up briefly, including producer Danny DeVito, reprising his role as unlikely star Martin Weir, this time with Anna Nicole Smith as his trophy babe; Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, saddled with another of the pic’s lame stabs at self-irony (“I’m not one of those singers who shows up in movies”); and an unbilled Seth Green as a video director. OutKast singer Andre Benjamin registers as a mildly promising comic presence in the first of his multiple film roles to hit theaters. Other music bizzers cameoing include Wyclef Jean, Fred Durst, Gene Simmons, Joe Perry and the RZA.
In a generally tidy but undistinguished package, Jeffrey L. Kimball’s widescreen lensing brings a slick gloss to the Los Angeles locations, while John Powell’s generic score and the standard mix of soul and hip-hop tracks are no match for the juicy jazz grooves penned by John Lurie for “Get Shorty.”