Tragically Unhip

(Photo credit: Courtesy of MGM)

A hapless comedy that already seems about ten years out of date, Be Cool is a curious failure. John Travolta—reprising the hood turned Hollywood player Chili Palmer role he played in 1995’s more adroit Get Shorty—floats through Be Cool with the hip serenity of the title. (Both films are based on Elmore Leonard novels.) Everything else about Be Cool, however, is clunky, and sometimes cringingly clueless. Set in the world of pop music, this is the only movie of the new millennium to assert that doing a duet with Aerosmith is a surefire way to launch a young singer’s career, or that still thinks Los Angeles’s musty Viper Room is an “in” spot.

Maybe this should have been expected, since Be Cool in its novel form is one of Leonard’s exceedingly rare clunkers. The best thriller writer alive faltered here in the way both young people and L.A. biz types talk; his pop-culture references have a delayed-reaction feeling. In the movie, one character, Vince Vaughn’s Raji, is this week’s white-man-talking-like-a-gangsta figure (“Mad respect for not givin’ respect!” he yaps to a foe). And we’re supposed to find it intrinsically funny that a wealthy black man (Cedric the Entertainer’s music mogul) speaks impeccable English yet settles his business disagreements with a big gun and a posse.

I don’t get it—the lameness, I mean. Director F. Gary Gray has done solid movies like The Italian Job and vivid music videos such as the one for OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson.” OutKast’s André “3000” Benjamin appears as one of Cedric’s thugs, himself the victim of a running gag about trying to sit in a chair built too low to the ground for comfort. The plot—Chili enters the music world by discovering a fresh new talent (played by charming actress-singer Christina Milian), but must outwit a new array of disreputable business folk—isn’t inherently bad; lots of good movies have been built around this simple concept. But did Be Cool have to cast Uma Thurman as a former Aerosmith follower who has the band’s logo tattooed to her backside, and compel her to dance with Travolta in a hollow homage to their Pulp Fiction hip-swiveling? And I don’t even have room to mention the Rock’s gay-bodyguard character and the barrage of homophobic yuks.

Crammed, in writer Peter Steinfeld’s adaptation, with “inside” jokes beginning with one of the opening lines—“Sequels suck”—Be Cool also marks the last film performance of Robert Pastorelli, in a rare funny scene set in L.A.’s famous Canter’s deli. But his role becomes unintentionally creepy when Pastorelli—who died of a drug overdose last year—is beaten to death by Vaughn with a baseball bat. All in all, they shoulda called this one Misbegotten.

Be Cool
Directed by F. Gary Gray.
MGM. PG-13.

Tragically Unhip