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'Be Cool': Lukewarm, With a Touch of Chili

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2005

Is the single idea in "Be Cool" enough to sustain the otherwise running-on-empty thing over a full hour and three quarters? Just barely.

That idea -- cynical as the devil's bile -- is that a mafioso's hard-bought street wisdom and predatory instincts prepare him perfectly for a career in show biz. It plays on the widely held suspicion that show biz is organized crime, except it's not as well organized.

John Travolta makes a pretty good ex-mob Shylock, amiable but unbudgeable. His thing is cool. He is always cool. He doesn't ruffle or rattle, swallow, spit, break eye contact, lick his lips, blush or flush or any other signals of weakness. He lights a cigarette to show off his tremble-free hands. No matter the circumstances -- whether you're holding a gun, a baseball bat, or an A-List star's contract -- you won't top him because it's like negotiating with an ice cube. He just lets you have both baby blues full bore, with a whisper of a smile playing across his long face, and he waits on -- he dares -- your move while communicating that your move just won't be good enough. And it never is.

This is a sequel to 1995's "Get Shorty," which introduced Travolta's Daddy Cool of a hustler, name of Palmer, Chili Palmer, who slithered sweatlessly through Hollywood, learning fast, unblinking like a snake, and quicker than you can say "I loved it" and "The check is in the mail," becoming a player. It wasn't a classic like "What Makes Sammy Run" but more of a "Look at wha' happened to Vinnie Barbarino!" kind of enterprise, guided by a black-humor specialist named Barry Sonnenfeld, who'd made the Addams Family films as well as "Men in Black."

This follow-up, also based on an Elmore Leonard novel, finds Chili having made so much dough in pictures that he's now just in it for the giggles. What makes him giggle this time is singer Linda Moon (Christina Milian, who seems like Janet Jackson on caffeine) in whom he Believes and of whom he decides to make a star. Unfortunately, this obligates him to move laterally into the music business, now fully captured by rap culture.

But Chili's sang-froid is just as important here as he plots Linda's rise through a number of complexities. These include an unwise iron-clad contract with a low-rent producer (Harvey Keitel), the distress of a failing label headed by the widow of a friend (Uma Thurman, too cool for "Be Cool"). But the worst ordeal may be an extended face-to-face with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, who proves that Liv got all the looks and that cosmetic dentistry may not be the answer it's thought to be. (His choppers look like porcelain tombstones on the march. Ew.)

Then there's an incomprehensible subplot about a mob of violent Russian pawnbrokers -- it seems to have been left over from whatever was playing last week -- and finally an evocation of hip-hop business practices that is meant to be funny but if the director were white -- F. Gary Gray is not -- would be called racist.

It's kind of -- hmmmm, less than good, a little better than not bad, almost all right, mediocre without being grating, sort of in the C-minus-to-C-minus-minus range. All the plots are sloppily squished together and unified only by Travolta, oozing charm, gumption and ruthlessness as he cakewalks through the whole thing, sublimely confident. The showiest role is played by Vince Vaughn, as a white record producer who wants to cross the color line and styles himself, too loudly, too lamely, as an African American. Again, the racial stereotyping leaves me extremely uneasy, particularly as all the African Americans, led by Cedric the Entertainer, are just as broadly imagined as gun-toting, jewelry-laden, droopy-drawered, finger-jivin', muscle-flexin', ET-lookin' mooks. Cedric, as a P. Diddy-class entrepreneur, is a little classier, but given a choice, he pulls out a chromed, jeweled .357 and holds it sideways as he makes his point in a business negotiation.

Then there's the Rock. Not a good career move. He plays a muscle-bound gay actor, part enforcer and part star wannabe inflamed with the shallowest kind of ambition (that is, vanity) and the brightest eyes. Again, the slight swish and the over-empathetic eyes are stereotype. I suppose the gentleman, who has proven quite an amusing screen presence in his own brand of low action-farce, can be forgiven for wanting to act in the worst possible way in the best possible project. This seems, however, more likely to retard than advance his aspirations toward the A-list, although a scene where he re-creates a classic monologue from screen history -- 2000's "Bring It On"! -- is passably funny.

Who's going to put a Travolta and a Thurman in a picture and not let them dance? Certainly not Gray, who throws them together as business partners, then lovers and finally dancers, and both move -- as they did in the infinitely superior "Pulp Fiction" -- superbly, if the number doesn't quite smoke in the way "Pulp's" permutation did.

Be Cool (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence and sexual innuendo.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company