Films, TV, and Theatre

Get Shorty (1995)

Crime comedy based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, starring John Travolta, Gene Hackman and Rene Russo. A Miami loan shark gets involved in the cut-throat world of Hollywood.

Stars: John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito, Dennis Farina, Linda Hart,
and Bette Midler (in an unforgettable cameo)
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

Todd McCarthy, Variety

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."

Martin Grove, The Hollywood Reporter

"Shorty" strategy: When too many films are chasing the same audience, the boxoffice results can be horrific, as the past few weekends demonstrated. Clearly, it helps to be unique, which should work to the advantage of MGM's comedy "Get Shorty," opening today.

Directed and executive produced by Barry Sonnenfeld, "Shorty" stars John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and Danny DeVito (its producer with Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher). It's a truly funny movie that should also be propelled by generating great word-of-mouth.

"The fall has been riddled with heavy subject films that are dark and I think there's a real appetite for a film that is lighter, comedic, fun and entertaining. The time is right for a movie like `Get Shorty' and I think it will be perfect counter programming to (what's now) in the marketplace," observed MGM/UA executive vp worldwide marketing Gerry Rich. Audiences are ready, he said, "for a film that is smart and intelligent but will make you laugh."

Moreover, Rich noted, the critics have embraced "Shorty": "The critical response has been overwhelmingly positive. It's unusual for comedies to get such strong critical acclaim. Through early test screenings we found that audiences loved the picture and were knocked out by the performances. It's nice when the critics and audiences agree."

Theater owners, too, want to get "Shorty." "We had originally planned to go out on 1,200 screens and then add screens into the run of the picture as momentum and word-of-mouth built," MGM/UA worldwide theatrical distribution president Larry Gleason explained. "But we've had such pressure from exhibitors to play it that we're in about 1,550 screens now."

"Shorty's" screenplay by Scott Frank is based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. One of its multiple plot lines revolves around a Miami loan shark (Travolta) who comes to Los Angeles to collect a debt from a movie producer (Hackman) but winds up pitching him an idea for a film. "There are three or four different stories contained in `Get Shorty,' " Gleason said. "It's what makes the movie so intriguing but also makes it difficult to sell. This movie's got so many things going for it and on so many different levels that it's hard to tell about it in a trailer or in a 30-second TV spot."

To overcome that, MGM opted to screen the film extensively to build word-of-mouth. "We thought the best way to sell the movie was to show the movie," Rich told me. "It sounds like a lazy perspective from the standpoint of marketing, but in this case the best tool we had was exposing the public to the film. We started screening (it about a month ago) very aggressively across the country -- in excess of 500 screenings from coast to coast. We targeted local opinion makers and people like radio disc jockeys and others who have really helped our effort by telling their friends and audiences to see this movie and see it quickly. That is truly one of the best sales devices. It's wonderful when you have a movie that sells itself and creates that buzz."

Roger Ebert

`I'm not gonna say any more than I have to, if that," a Miami loan shark named Chili Palmer says, early in "Get Shorty." The perfect note in this sentence is the addition of if that. It comes with our knowledge that everyone in the movie will say more than they have to, because "Get Shorty" is based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, that grandmaster of low-life dialogue.

Chili (John Travolta) is a man who knows his way around organized crime but dreams of the movies. In the course of "Get Shorty's" intricate plot, he follows a mob assignment from Miami to Brooklyn to Las Vegas to Los Angeles, where he finds himself sitting in the middle of the night in the living room of a sleaze merchant who produces movies with titles like "The Slime People." For Chili, who knows the man's work, it is like being in heaven.

The producer is Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman, with an overbite). He has always moved hopefully on the fringes of the Hollywood big time, making a living but never making a hit. Chili has broken into his house to intimidate him into paying a gambling debt. But Chili originally came out west on the tail of a Miami dry-cleaner named Leo Devoe (David Paymer), who collected a $300,000 insurance payout when a plane crashed and everyone thought he was on it. Devoe owes the money to "Bones" Barboni (Dennis Farina), a Mafia boss. And Chili, sitting in Harry Zimm's den in the middle of the night, ends up pitching this story to the producer because he thinks it would make a good movie.

One of the pleasures of "Get Shorty" is watching the way the plot moves effortlessly from crime to the movies - not a long distance, since both industries are based on fear, greed, creativity and intimidation. Elmore Leonard's characters may exist in the crevices of society, but they are smart and verbal, and don't take forever to get to the point. There are a lot of scenes in the movie where people come into the room wanting one thing and leave wanting another. They are persuaded to change their minds by the seductive lure of Hollywood. Even Barboni (one of Farina's best performances, with a broken nose that grows more painful to look at every time we see it) is not immune to the glitter.

Of course, this is low-grade glitter. We meet a gallery of characters, all played in a laconic key as Hollywood types for whom all sentiments are cynical. Harry Zimm, for example, is found in bed with Karen Flores (Rene Russo), a "scream queen" who is the kind of actress who becomes a cover girl for Fangoria. She used to be married to Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), a major, if short, movie star. They all scheme to get "Shorty" into their picture, and the movie's single best scene is one where Travolta gives DeVito acting lessons in how to look filled with menace.

Many characters seem lifted from the autobiography of Ed Wood: Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo), who owns a limousine service and is owed big money by Zimm; Bear (James Gandolfini), a stunt man who thinks he is very tough but has never met anyone like Chili Palmer before, and Doris (Bette Midler in an uncredited cameo), whose success is based on being as close to a 1930s sex siren as anyone is likely to get in this lifetime.

One of the tactile pleasures of "Get Shorty" is the dialogue. John Travolta has said in interviews that he insisted the original Leonard dialogue be put back into the screenplay, which had been translated into flat, functional Hollywood Speak. In Time magazine this week, he provides an example: In the novel, when Chili's beloved jacket is taken from a check room, he says, "You see a black leather jacket, fingertip length, has lapels like a suitcoat? You don't, you owe me three seventy-nine. You get the coat back or you give me the three seventy-nine my wife paid for it at Alexander's." In the screenplay, he says, this speech had been changed to, "Where's my coat? You better find it. It cost $400."

Travolta was right to see that the soul of the story is in the way the characters speak. What is amazing is that anyone would buy an Elmore Leonard novel and want to change the dialogue. The language is the whole point. In "Get Shorty," it sings in counterpoint to the plotting, which is so complex it gets funny, especially after $300,000 is put into a locker at the airport and everyone wants it, but the FBI has it staked out.

"Get Shorty" was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, a former cinematographer ("Miller's Crossing," "Misery") who directed the two Addams Family movies. He has made a small jewel: a film that demonstrates, to our amazement, that even the Hollywood characters in "The Player" were not quite at the bottom of the barrel.