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‘Get Shorty’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 20, 1995

 


Director:
Barry Sonnenfeld
Cast:
John Travolta;
Gene Hackman;
Rene Russo;
Danny DeVito;
Dennis Farina;
Delroy Lindo;
David Paymer
R
Under 17 restricted


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If you thought John Travolta was divine in "Pulp Fiction," just wait till you see how suave and winning he is in "Get Shorty," Barry Sonnenfeld's irresistibly charming lampoon of Hollywood.

With his hair dyed Elvis-black and brushed back close to his imposing head, Travolta plays Chili Palmer, a Miami loan shark sent to Los Angeles to collect on a gambling debt from Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), a marginally respectable producer of schlock horror films. By occupation, Chili is supposed to be a hard guy; he's the one who applies the pressure for his employer—in this case a Vegas casino—when the bill is overdue.

But Chili is so hard that he doesn't have to flaunt it. Instead, he comes across almost like a friend of the family. When he drops in on Harry—he simply walks into Harry's house while he's sleeping and flips on Letterman—he laughs off the notion that he's come to rough up Harry and immediately begins inquiring into the man's business, looking for a way to help him out.

Harry's problems with a dream project called "Mr. Lovejoy" are what propel this ingeniously witty satire. Harry says the would-be movie is his "Driving Miss Daisy," but he's too financially strapped to make it. Not only does he owe $150,000 to the boys in Vegas, he's also down a nice piece of change to Bo (Delroy Lindo), a local drug dealer-limo driver.

All is not lost, though. According to Harry, his actress girlfriend, Karen (Rene Russo), used to be married to Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), a diminutive actor so hugely popular that his autobiography is on everyone's shelf and his picture on every magazine cover. If Weir is in, the movie gets made. Immediately, Chili knows what to do—get Shorty.

And if anybody can get him, it's Chili. Charming, amiable, at times almost goofy, Chili moves through the upper echelons of the Hollywood elite and lower depths of gangsterdom with equal ease. Just from the breezing, carefree way Travolta walks, he makes Chili look as if nothing can touch him. Though Chili is an avid movie fan with a vast warehouse of quote lines at his fingertips, before coming to L.A. he hadn't the slightest wish to get into the business. But Chili is a master at improvisation; whatever the situation, he goes with it and shrewdly turns it to his own advantage.

What's great about Travolta's performance here is how effortlessly seductive it is. At one point, he takes in a screening of Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil," and the boyish delight he gets from its climax suddenly makes him look 20 years younger. Chili loves L.A.; he may never leave, especially since he is able to snag the lovely Karen away from Harry.

Though Scott Frank's screenplay—astutely adapted from the popular Elmore Leonard novel—captures the vanity and situational ethics of the players in the business, his satire is affectionate. How can you not fall in love with an egomaniac like DeVito's Weir? When this bantam star waltzes into a restaurant, plops down at his table and immediately begins giving special instructions to the chef, it's a perfect reading on megastar capriciousness.

But then, everyone is terrific. As Harry, Hackman has buck teeth and the scruples of a Sunset Strip hooker. Lindo is powerful and threatening as yet another crook who would like to buy a little taste of movie glamour. Even Russo, usually merely a model impersonating an actress, is effective.

With its crisscrossing plot lines, "Get Shorty" tells a complex story, and it is to his credit that Sonnenfeld (the "Addams Family" movies) keeps everything straight. His approach is remarkably low-key. There are jokes and laugh lines scattered everywhere, but Sonnenfeld is assured enough to let us discover them on our own.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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