There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
and Paul Auster
Ade-pulped Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty again puts John Travolta at the center of an intricate web of tough-guy subplots. This time, though, he’s being directed by Addams Family veteran Barry Sonnenfeld, whose sensibility seems to owe more to sitcoms and cabaret than to blaxploitation and the nouvelle vague. The result is so weightless than it recalls Welcome Back, Kotter more than the grown-up work of Travolta’s comeback phase.
Adapted by scripter Scott Frank from the Elmore Leonard novel, Shorty is a gangsta farce. Though it involves a few severe beatings and several more deaths, it’s never scary or shocking. The film is as suburbanized as its Miami and L.A. locations, and about as unthreatening as a walk on the wild side can be. It’s clever, and funny in a detached sort of way, but so glib and hollow that it hardly seems worth laughing at.
Travolta is Chili Palmer, an independent-minded underworld debt collector in Miami. Nominally, he works for Ray “Bones” Barboni (Dennis Farina), but the two don’t get along, so when Chili discovers that presumed-dead debtor Leo is in fact alive and in Las Vegas, he follows the tip without informing his boss. From Vegas, Chili pursues Leo to L.A., where he soon meets Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), a small-time Hollywood producer with a big-time gambling debt, and Karen Flores (Rene Russo), an equally small-time actress and Harry’s sometime girlfriend.
An ardent movie buff, Chili decides he has a great idea for Harry’s next film: the story of his own pursuit of Leo. He also expects to soon have Leo’s money, which could finance the project. The three ally and decide to recruit successful actor Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), Karen’s ex-husband, to play the lead. Meanwhile, however, Harry has already taken money from impatient drug dealer Bo (Delroy Lindo), who has two other, simultaneous problems: an annoying young Latin American drug-cartel emissary and $300,000 in an airport locker that’s under surveillance by DEA agents.
The first joke here is that everybody wants to be a movie producer—and that Bo, Karen, and especially Chili are as qualified as Harry. (The film sends Chili to a rep-house screening of Touch of Evil so he can prove he knows all the dialogue, and later he bests Bo in a Rio Bravo trivia dispute.) The second joke is that Harry and Martin can’t help but emulate Chili’s gangster demeanor, an ineffable, black-leather-jacketed cool that’s so unflappable one can only think of, well, the Fonz.
Martin’s impersonation makes him look foolish, however, and Harry’s proves downright dangerous. At times, it seems that Shorty‘s message is that everyone who’s not a gangster is a schmuck, but the moral is even simpler than that: Everyone who’s not Chili is a schmuck.
That all this intrigue could be reduced to so basic a message is disappointing, but then Shorty is relentlessly simple-minded; its worldview is as uncomplicated as its plot is complex. Decorated with cameos by various sitcom, cabaret, and gangster-movie stars, the film demonstrates no doubts about either underworld cool or Hollywood glamour. It’s the sort of movie that’s so slick that all its narrative twists produce virtually no friction.
Only the dead know Brooklyn,” a character in a Thomas Wolfe short story opines, but Wayne Wang and Paul Auster disagree. Their Blue in the Face, a partially improvised “instant movie” spun off from Smoke, offers a diverse array of Brooklyn know-it-alls, from Smoke veterans Harvey Keitel, Mel Gorham, and Giancarlo Esposito to newcomers Lou Reed, Jim Jarmusch, Michael J. Fox, Mira Sorvino, and Malik Yoba. It’s a tightknit neighborhood, though, and some of the recent immigrants—notably one-namers Roseanne, Madonna, and RuPaul—just don’t belong.
An offhand footnote to the over-plotted Smoke, Blue was shot in less than two weeks. That gives it an appealing freshness, though not necessarily much else. By definition, the film is hit-or-miss, and one of the misses is the theme that’s supposed to hold things together: a threat to the existence of the Brooklyn Cigar Co., a principal location of both Blue and its predecessor. That Vinnie (Victor Argo) might sell the store and put Auggie (Keitel) out of work and the OTB boys (notably Esposito’s Tommy) out in the street is urban dislocation in miniature. But the possibility never seems real, and the resolution of the issue is corny and uninteresting.
In deference to the scripter’s role in defining Smoke, Wang decided to bill it as “a film by Wayne Wang and Paul Auster.” This time, Auster actually served as director for a day, when Wang was sick. This is not a director’s movie, however. There’s not much either of them could have done with Roseanne (not an improviser) or Madonna (not an actress), and others who try gamely don’t fare much better: Michael J. Fox seems more earnest than nuts as Tommy’s crazed former high-school classmate, and Lily Tomlin’s self-conscious Belgian Waffle Man belongs in one of her skits, not here.
Still, her cameo sets up actual Belgian (and actual author) Luc Sante, who explains that his countrymen are bemused by the New York notion of a Belgian waffle. Sante’s not the only real person who upstages the fictional ones. Lou Reed, who contributed a song about egg creams to David Byrne’s polyethnic soundtrack, is dryly funny about Brooklyn, Long Island, and Sweden.
Keitel also has a few nice exchanges: As Auggie, he rescues the purse of a woman (Sorvino) who’s reluctant to persecute the young perp, he banters with the OTB boys and a protean hustler/rapper (Yoba), and serves as an appreciative audience to Jarmusch’s elegy to his last cigarette. He also bickers amusingly with his sometime girlfriend (Gorham), who’s called on to perform a stripteasy version of “Fever” before her bedroom mirror. That’s not a deathless musical moment, and neither are most of the others provided by the film and Byrne’s score. To recall the title of one of Auster’s novels, the music of chance has its charms, but in Blue they’re only intermittent.
In adapting Persuasion to the screen, director Roger Michell and scripter Nick Dear seem to have accomplished the essential thing: not infuriating the legions of faithful Jane Austen fans who are surely the principal audience. The film has its virtues, but it’s clearly a subsidiary of the novel, not an independent entity.
Produced for a BBC/Masterpiece Theater consortium, Persuasion is familiar in mode and (frequently) in location. Anne Elliot, the tale’s worthy yet (of course) ummarried heroine, leaves her family’s Somerset country house, which has been rented to Adm. and Mrs. Croft (John Woodvine and Fiona Shaw). She first travels to her married younger sister Mary’s home in Uppercross, then to Lyme Regis (where she strolls the sea wall Meryl Steep walked more excitably in The French Lieutenant’s Woman), and finally to Bath, where her vain, spendthrift father (Corin Redgrave) and her self-absorbed older sister Elizabeth (Phoebe Nicholls) now reside. Though Anne’s marriage has never figured much in her father’s ambitions, in Bath she becomes the focus of a romantic rivalry between her cousin William (who, as the closest male relative of the next generation, is the heir to her father’s title) and a dashing naval officer, Capt. Frederick Went worth, recently returned from the first round of the Napoleonic Wars.
The essential elements in these circumstances are gradually revealed, although those who have read the novel will initially be at an advantage, especially in understanding the relationship between Anne (Amanda Root) and Frederick (Ciaran Hinds). The couple had been engaged eight years earlier, but Anne had called it off, following the advice of Lady Russell (Susan Fleetwood), her closest adviser since the death of her mother. When she meets Wentworth again, it’s widely assumed that he’s now courting one of her sisters-in-law, Louisa Musgrove (Emma Roberts). Meanwhile, William (Samuel West) seems a fine match, perhaps even to Anne.
For those who don’t already know it, the outcome of Frederick and William’s competition will hardly come as a surprise. Indeed, deprived of the novel’s most charming conversationalist—Austen’s omniscient narrator herself—the proceedings become rather obvious. After a few minutes of untangling the family relationships, it’s too quickly established that Anne is the only worthwhile woman of her generation—the rest are all self-centered, whiny, or frivolous—and that her happiness is the story’s inevitable goal. Indeed, in casting the film Michell seems to have favored Anne even more than Austen did.
The director is a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as are many members of the cast, and they maintain their fluid British ensemble style while downsizing their performances for the intimacy of film. Michell, meanwhile, makes modest efforts to prevent the stand ard measure of Masterpiece Theater prissiness. The characters are not bewigged, and wear little makeup. There are even some 20th-century touches, notably the use of handheld camera in a few uncharacteristically kinetic scenes, a spot of slo-mo, and some crashing piano chords that interrupt Jeremy Sams’ generally genteel score. Like the script’s slightly more explicit ending, however, these are not brash moves: Persuasion aspires to be little more than an homage to the novel, and will probably most please those who can’t imagine a bolder approach.