Do me a favor. If some jerk tells you that Get Shorty, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1990 best seller about a Miami loan shark who links up with the sharks of the movie business and fits right in, is another ripoff of Pulp Fiction, clobber him with a stack of Leonard’s 32 crime novels, preferably hardcovers. Leonard, now 70, was writing primo pulp before Quentin Tarantino gurgled his first “fuck you.” What really hurts is that most films cut from Leonard’s gorgeously terse prose — The Big Bounce, with Ryan O’Neal; Mr. Majestyk, with Charles Bronson; and Stick, with Burt Reynolds — were bloated Hollywood hogwash.
Until now. Get Shorty serves up Leonard in grand style. There are a few broad strokes, and the stew could have used a dash more menace and sexual simmer. But why quibble when the sound, feel and sizzle of Leonard is otherwise pitch perfect? Screenwriter Scott Frank (Little Man Tate) lifts gobs of Leonard’s deliciously profane dialogue, which gives a knockout cast, led by John Travolta as the loan shark Chili Palmer, a feast to dine upon. Director Barry Sonnenfeld, of the two Addams Family films, uses a light touch to smashing comic effect. And Leonard gets to stick it to the Hollywood that stuck it to him. The result is one of the best movies of the year and by far the most entertaining.
In typical Leonard style the film begins in the middle of a seemingly irrelevant conversation. Chili and his hood buddy Tommy (Martin Ferrero) are sitting in a Miami restaurant, discussing the unseasonably cold weather and old Jimmy Cagney movies. Chili is a big movie fan, with a leather jacket “like the one Pacino wore in Serpico.” The problem is that mob hothead Ray “Bones” Barboni (the superb Dennis Farina) has borrowed Chili’s jacket from the coat room. On the drive to Ray’s, Chili and Tommy hash out the etiquette for getting back the jacket. Chili acts quickly. When Ray opens the door, Chili nails him with one swift punch in the face, grabs his jacket and exits as Ray’s large nose gushes blood.
The scene is pure Leonard, and Tarantino, who had Pulp Fiction‘s two hit men (Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) talking foot massage, admits his debt to the master: “Leonard was the first writer I’d read who let mundane conversations inform the characters. Then all of a sudden, woof, you’re into whatever story you’re telling.”
Not exactly. Leonard loves to zig and zag, and Sonnenfeld follows him with faithful exuberance, stopping to listen to Chili discuss the fine distinctions between John Wayne in Rio Bravo and in El Dorado, to show how Chili winds up working for Ray even after Chili creases the bum’s head with a bullet and to introduce a new gallery of rogues, including Leo Devoe (the incomparably hilarious David Paymer), a dry cleaner who fakes his death in a plane crash to dodge his debts. On orders from Ray, Chili tracks Leo first to Vegas, then to Los Angeles, where Chili also tries to collect on money owed to him by Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), a producer of cheap and sleazy horror flicks with only one badge of honor: “No TV.”
“Look at me, Harry,” says Chili, who uses the laser intensity of his baby blues to make people anxious. Harry is plenty anxious; this Florida shylock has roused Harry from the bed he’s sharing with Karen Flores (Rene Russo), the star of all three of Harry’s Slime Creatures films. He offers Chili a chance to get in on his latest project, a quality film called Mr. Lovejoy, in exchange for getting a badass investor, Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo), off Harry’s back. It’s Bo’s money that Harry lost in Vegas trying to raise the $500,000 it’ll take to buy the Mr. Lovejoy script from the writer’s rapacious widow, played by Bette Midler in a hoot of a cameo. This is Hollywood, where everyone has a pitch, including Chili. He has an idea for a movie about a shylock chasing a dry cleaner. It’s real life, but Harry isn’t buying. There’s no female lead, no one to sympathize with and no good guy. Says Chili: “The shylock is the good guy.”
He is this time. Travolta, on a roll after Pulp Fiction, gives a dynamite performance — seductive, funny and beautifully nuanced. With Hackman, in a classic sendup of scum with ambition, he is all control. With Russo, sexy, scrappy and touching as an intelligent woman tired of wearing tank tops and fuck-me pumps to scream at movie monsters — he is all romantic longing. Chili nabs Karen’s heart and body with his sincere praise of her work in Bride of the Mutant: “Joan fuckin’ Crawford wishes on her best day she had that much presence and charisma — not even in Mildred Pierce, which, by the way, was a better book than a movie.”
The awful and sometimes artful things movies do to books is Get Shorty‘s bristling subtext. In one memorable scene, Chili and Bo break into Harry’s office to read Mr. Lovejoy and decide they could improve the script better than the pros. “You write down what you wanna say, then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit,” says Bo, a studio chief in the making. Lindo, an Oscar favorite for Clockers, is terrific. Ditto James Gandolfini as Bear, the stunt man turned stooge for Bo. After Chili creams Bear for trying to set him up in an airport drug scam, he stops to give him a lesson in pride: “You were in the movies, right? What’s Bo ever done he can talk about?”
Ironically, it’s a movie biggie who proves to be Chili’s toughest nut. Martin Weir is Karen’s former husband, the star of Napoleon and the bankable name Chili and Harry need to launch Mr. Lovejoy. Danny DeVito plays this peewee egomaniac, the “Shorty” of the title, with priceless wit and cunning. Karen warns Chili: “Martin flips over a script, and when the time comes to make a deal, he flips out.” It’s Chili’s job to hold a gun to this shorty’s swelled head.
In 1984, diminutive Dustin Hoffman took meetings with Leonard about starring in the author’s LaBrava, then decided not to make a deal. The payback in Get Shorty is executed with rare good humor. Martin talks actor gibberish to Chili about “finding the stem of the character” and demonstrates how he would play a tough guy with a laughable collection of squints and snarls. “Look at me,” says Chili, showing Martin the real thing. “Put it in your eyes: ‘You’re mine, asshole.'” It’s a remarkable scene, a hood teaching an actor to play danger as spare, focused and vividly real, the way Leonard sees it.
Happily, Chili gets the last laugh, and Leonard gets a movie packed with oddball characters who retain their rough edges, just the way Hollywood hates it. Even that’s changing, now that Tarantino has optioned four Leonard novels and plans to begin by directing Killshot. You leave Get Shorty with a sensation akin to Chili’s when he leaves Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil at a revival house. “Wow, huh?” says Chili to the strangers in the theater as the lights go up. It’s the kick that comes when a movie gets it right despite the odds. Get Shorty gets it wonderfully right. Wow, huh?