“Be Cool” is too insubstantial to get worked up about — hating it would be like hating a speck of lint. The only really interesting thing about this boneheaded film version of Elmore Leonard’s 1999 best-seller is how flagrantly it trashes the book, and its resultantly flamboyant incoherence. The movie is such a pure example of Hollywood witlessness and crass commercial exploitation, it invites close examination.
Let’s start with the source material. It diminishes Elmore Leonard to say that he’s our greatest living crime novelist. Like Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald before him, he’s a gifted writer working within a popular genre whose limits he routinely transcends. Leonard is the reigning master of tough-guy dialogue, and his books, with their cockeyed lowlife characters and meticulously plotted stories, read like movies waiting to be made.
Unfortunately, of the 10 Leonard crime novels so far turned into films, most have been woefully ill-served, consigned to the care of filmmakers who had no clue as to how to capture the author’s distinctively pungent tone. Steven Soderbergh did the best Leonard adaptation with his 1998 “Out of Sight,” a fatalistic comic romance to which George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez brought believable heat. Many people also ladle praise upon “Jackie Brown,” Quentin Tarantino’s long-winded 1997 rendition of Leonard’s “Rum Punch.” And of course Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 screen version of “Get Shorty” was a sizeable hit. Now, 10 years later, comes “Be Cool,” a sequel that nobody was clamoring for.
In the book, ex-loan shark Chili Palmer, who in “Get Shorty” established himself as a Hollywood moviemaker, becomes involved with Edie Athens, a blowsy one-time Aerosmith hanger-on who’s inherited a small record company from her recently rubbed-out ex-gangster husband. Chili quickly realizes that the music business, like the movie business, isn’t much different from the crime business, and when he comes upon a talented singer and guitarist named Linda Moon, he decides to make her a star.
Linda is a hardcore rock-and-roller. (Leonard based the character on Barbara Keith, leader of the stubbornly independent rock trio the Stone Coyotes.) But she’s paying the rent performing with a prefab schlock-pop group called Chicks International, which is managed by a pimpish black hustler called Raji, who has a mountainous gay Samoan bodyguard with the unlikely name of Elliott Wilhelm. Chili sets out to pry Linda away from Raji, reunite her with the three-piece Texas rock band she once fronted and have them cut an album. (Chili has no carnal designs on either Linda or Edie; he’s romantically involved with a smart, tough-minded movie executive named Elaine Levin.) After wading through a series of complications created by a talkaholic indie promo weasel named Nick Carr, a menacing rap producer called Sin Russell, and a gang of murderous Russian mobsters, Chili manages to get Linda and her band the opening slot for an Aerosmith concert at the L.A. Forum.
Here’s what “Be Cool” director F. Gary Gray (who started out making hip-hop videos for people like Ice Cube and Coolio) and screenwriter Peter Steinfeld have made of this story. Chili Palmer is still present, of course, still played with deadpan stolidity (and possibly without a pulse) by John Travolta. But Chili’s girlfriend Elaine has been eliminated, and his romantic interest clumsily transferred to Edie Athens, who’s no longer an over-the-hill groupie, but instead is played at full glam wattage by Uma Thurman. And since Travolta and Thurman had a famously funny dance scene in “Pulp Fiction,” it is a matter of lumbering inevitability that they should be reunited on the dance floor here — for no reason, and to no purpose, whatsoever. (The filmmakers may have started out hoping to appropriate some of “Pulp Fiction”’s iconic hipness. Another member of that movie’s cast, Harvey Keitel, is also here, playing the jive-spouting Nick Carr; but so little is made of this character, and Keitel is so wrong for the part, you can’t fathom why he was hired to play it.)
Meanwhile, Raji, the black manager, a threatening presence in the book, is now played by Vince Vaughn, a definitively white actor, and he’s now a gangsta wannabe with a white fedora and a chest full of chains who says things like “Wassup?” and “Why you trippin’ on me?” and “Come on, playa, stop hatin’, start participatin’.” This Raji is an idiot, and in any accurate depiction of the rap world — or the real world generally — we might expect to see him spending significant amounts of screen time in the hospital.
Most astonishingly of all, Linda Moon, the hardcore rock-and-roller, has now become an aspiring R&B diva straight off the Janet Jackson assembly line. (She’s played — not badly, for what it’s worth — by Christina Milian.) Because the Aerosmith element of the book’s plot has been retained (with Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler over-playing himself, an activity in which he’s had some 30 years of practice), this grafted-on plot element completely capsizes the story. There have been few more ludicrous sequences in a music-related movie than the one in which Tyler sits listening to Linda’s overproduced and utterly run-of-the-mill R&B demo — and really gets into it. Or the one in which this retrofitted Linda actually joins Aerosmith onstage and immediately converts a stadium full of howling rock fans with her goopy power-balladry — they love it. Yes, really.
Some good actors are trapped in this appalling mess of a movie (on which, it must be said, the 79-year-old Elmore Leonard acted as an executive producer). Cedric the Entertainer, who plays the rap producer Sin, has an engaging comic presence (he operates at a low boil that keeps you looking forward to his next eruption), and he almost saves every scene he’s in. Vince Vaughn, usually a hoot in any film he adorns, is betrayed at every turn by the moronic script; but the Rock, taking on the role of the gay Samoan bodyguard Elliott, seizes the character and runs with it, and his portrayal of this butt-slapping dimwit is the funniest thing in the movie. (Unfortunately, since Elliott’s Samoan roots aren’t emphasized in the earlier parts of the film, the bit at the end in which he comes out on a stage and does a wild island dance — a scene that survives from the book — makes not the slightest bit of sense.)
There’s more — too, too much more. The bumbling Russian mobsters, who’re conceived at the comic level of Keystone Cops. The irritating gangland hit man, ferociously over-acted by Robert Pastorelli. The asininity is endless. “Be Cool” exhibits such ineptitude in the craft of storytelling, and such blithe, unthinking contempt for the basic intelligence of moviegoers, that you have to pray there’s no audience for it. The people who made this picture must not be encouraged in any way.