Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld
Cast: John Travolta, Rene Russo, Gene Hackman
If you’ve seen a number of Barry Sonnenfeld’s films over the years (e.g. Men in Black trilogy, The Addams Family duology), you may be surprised to discover that the director began his career as the cinematographer for the Coen brothers on their earliest projects. Sonnenfeld, now with over ten films of his own, has always had a hard time locking into a specific aesthetic and narrative style, with his movies both good and bad—almost never able to replicate the visual panache of his former captains. That is, with one exception.
Get Shorty, Sonnenfeld’s fourth feature, based on the Elmore Leonard book, almost feels like it’s made by the Coens themselves, even though they have no involvement. It has a lot of the slick camerawork and scene composition of Blood Simple and the wry comedic tone of Raising Arizona. Despite not necessarily being his most memorable among fans, Get Shorty might be the director’s technical best and can be regarded as a sort of filmmaker’s film—in more ways than one.
John Travolta plays Chili Palmer, a loan shark for the Miami mob. After the recent death of his boss, he’s now working for his rival, Ray “Bones” Barboni (Dennis Farina), and is tasked with chasing down a debt from a deceased drycleaner, Leo Devoe (David Paymer), who, unbeknownst to Bones, faked his own death and moved to Las Vegas with the airline insurance money. Chili makes this discovery after visiting Leo’s “widow” and following the trail, which eventually lands him in Los Angeles where he meets B-movie horror director Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), who also happens to owe money to a casino owner in Vegas. With the dots all connected, Chili proposes a film idea to Zimm based on the faked death of Leo and the fallout that came from it. He doesn’t quite have much more than a first act, but works on the rest of the story as his own adventures in Hollywood pan out as well.
The intricate plot details in the early stages can become a tad bit confusing, but things quickly get sorted out without the audience falling too far behind. Screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, Logan) employs a Hollywood patois that undoubtedly ensures many viewers won’t understand the satire and esoteric references, despite being able to keep up with the story itself, but this is never really detrimental to the success of the storytelling. The dialogue is rich as it dances from character to character in ways we can’t ever see coming. And Frank’s grasp on story and character nuance elevates the movie beyond cliché “gangster goes good” tropes to something that can be viewed with fresh eyes.
Even if there are two or three instances where the logic behind the jokes needs to be stretched a little in order for them to work, the script effectively balances satisfying humor with thrilling plot twists. Get Shorty is one of those films that gives you all the pieces along the way, coming together at the end so that it all makes sense—at least everything that matters. Sonnenfeld still leaves some loose ends out there, such as with a Mexican drug cartel subplot, as well as the fate of Leo—Chili at one point borrows an extra 10k from Leo, but it’s never explained why.
The cast is excellent from top to bottom, assembled with powerhouse character actors who all command a certain presence on screen, including the beautifully typecast Dennis Farina in a role that seems to be invented just for him: the annoyingly cocky and detestable loose cannon who’s never quite as competent as he wants to be (or as he probably should be), and Delroy Lindo as the sordid limo driver who desperately wants to crack into the movie business, yet finds it difficult to leave his extracurriculars behind. Both performers are perfect for their roles and do a great job making their characters feel lived in.
Gene Hackman is also perfect as the everyman, dreamer, director-type who goes through quite a development from pushover to tenacious businessman throughout the film, having a hard time finding a balance between the two without one compromising the other. The actor always maintains the vulnerability at the core of his character, which offers some nice surprises along the way. At one point Zimm goes behind Chili’s back and gets himself involved with Bones, but quickly realizes that he had been actually dealing with the nice guy in Chili all along, and that some of the other gangsters don’t play quite as fairly.
Of course, the role that famously got Travolta out of a decade-long slump was Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction, which many consider to be the best performance of his career. However, he’s much better here. Not always able to handle the large chunks of dialogue and unorthodox asides that Tarantino is known for, Travolta also just seems to understand the character of Chili Palmer a bit better as well. The scene where he’s sitting in the movie theater watching the classic noir Touch of Evil, quoting every line and laughing to himself like a little kid at the cleverness of Orson Welles’ writing, you can just sense he’s tapped into the heart of Chili and gets him on a personal level.
Chili doesn’t play to every mob stereotype. He’s clear-thinking, straight-shooting, intimidating, and aggressive, sure, but he’s also very human and likable with admirable vulnerabilities. He’s without the sort of blind pride that comes with typical movie mobsters and doesn’t feel entitled to people’s attention especially if he doesn’t like them all that much. He admits when he’s scared and even apologizes when he does something wrong. Chili makes friends with everyone, or at the very least earns their respect, realizing that he has to impress and kiss up to get anywhere in showbusiness, even to those who don’t necessarily deserve it.
Sonnenfeld uses a satirical tone to justify the meta plot and an assortment of grounded characters to prevent it from feeling too farfetched.
Get Shorty, at its core, is about a mobster who has an earnest dream of making it in Hollywood. Always calculated, Chili hardly ever acts out on emotion, but with his brains. He applies his gangster mentality and the skills he’s accumulated over the years in the business of loan sharking to the world of movie making, and often tows the line between honest and duplicitous. However, he always seems to be more honorable than most of the Hollywood heads he’s dealing with, and also comes to realize that they are a lot more sloppy than even the biggest wild cards in the mob.
The film draws stark comparisons between the business of the mob and that of Hollywood, showing how dirty they both are. Yet somehow the mob operates more on convention and organization than it does haphazardly going about their business and screwing people over without any fear of consequence. So when someone like Chili comes to town and stirs things up, these Hollywood guys, being so far removed from any sort of organized crime life, don’t know how to react, and their loosey-goosey operation winds up getting exposed in a big way.
Get Shorty is effective as a mordant homage to Hollywood, showing us how corrupt the business can actually (and easily) be. Sonnenfeld uses a satirical tone to justify the meta plot and an assortment of grounded characters to prevent it from feeling too far-fetched. Yet the film remains esoteric enough to make the audience feel like they’re being allowed to peek behind the curtain. With light touches of noir sketchings, a unique brand of unconventional and peppy turn-of-phrase, and brilliant performances, this cult classic hits on nearly every level and keeps the surprises coming.