The novels of pulp author Elmore Leonard have provided the foundation for a few wonderfully realized film adaptations. Steven Soderbergh brought his too-cool-for-school stylistics to his version “Out of Sight,” Quentin Tarantino took Leonard’s book “Rum Punch” and created the subtle yet great “Jackie Brown,” and ten years ago, Barry Sonnenfeld brought “Get Shorty” to the silver screen. All three films spun great character-driven crime yarns defined by their tongue-in-cheek, self-conscious humor and memorable performances. It’s a shame, then, to be forced to add F. Gary Gray’s “Be Cool” (MGM) to this legacy of Leonard-based cinema. It’s a glossy, empty shell of a movie, satisfied to be nothing more than a commercial product devoid of any soul or personality.
The film follows Chili Palmer (John Travolta) as he seeks to reinvigorate an independent music label run by Edie Athens (Uma Thurman). Hot on his tail are the pathetic Raji (Vince Vaughn), his gay bodyguard (The Rock), and record rivals Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer) and Dabu (Andre Benjamin of OutKast). Each and every actor in the film phones in his or her performance, an inevitability that can be credited to its forgettable dialogue and contrived humor. The film’s most noteworthy trait is its ubiquitous use of product placement; almost every major character is seen using a BlackBerry-like cell phone. There are almost as many shots of Travolta’s Cadillac and Thurman’s Ford Thunderbird as there are of the actors. Domino’s Pizza, Pepsi, and Jamba Juice all make cameos. The commercialization seems almost appropriate, as the actors here seem nothing more than products themselves, advertising their own career-defining trademarks. John Travolta and Uma Thurman sharing an extended dance sequence? The Rock raising his eyebrow? It’s surprising that Andre Benjamin didn’t belt out “Hey Ya!”
But what makes “Be Cool” most unbearable is the mean-spirited, almost vicious air it takes on when it’s not using the screen as ad space. It displays an overtly homophobic tone towards the Rock’s character, its violence is gratuitous without reason and its women are depicted as sex objects without kitsch or irony.
What’s most disheartening is that no matter how bad it is (and it’s quite terrible), “Be Cool” will doubtless be a box office hit this weekend. It’s another in a long and terrible line of mediocre assembly-line intellectual anesthetics, carrying on and even amplifying the tradition of motion pictures as consumables, of the cinema as a commodity. That audiences keep mindlessly buying into it and ensuring its continuation is the greatest tragedy of all. God bless America.
“Be Cool” opens in Washington, D.C. Friday.