The advantages are straightforward: It's easier to recycle old material than to create something new--that is, after all, the raison d' être
of the sequel--and even if the movie is terrible, at least it won't
look like anyone was trying too hard. (In Hollywood, as in junior high,
visible effort is the height of uncool.) Moreover, for franchises like Scream and Austin Powers,
spoofing what came before makes a certain amount of sense. Since the
material being riffed on is already parodic, the sequels still do
justice to the tone and appeal of the originals. But lately the form
seems to be making its way up the genre food chain, from outright
comedies and genre parodies to straighter entertainments like the Get Shorty and Ocean's Eleven movies. The results are not heartening.
Take Be Cool (please), the Get Shorty sequel released
on video earlier this month. In addition to being a near-scientific
proof of my theory of Elmore Leonard adaptations (here
for those who missed it), it is an exceptional test case in the
limitations of irony, a broad, silly homage featuring more inside jokes
than a twentieth reunion of frat brothers.
To be fair, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) and screenwriter Peter Steinfeld (Analyze That) didn't have all that much to work with. Be Cool is among Leonard's weakest crime novels, a good reminder of why he typically eschews sequels. Where Get Shorty
told a clever tale about a Miami gangster, Chili Palmer (Travolta), who
moved to L.A. and quickly insinuated himself in the movie business, Be Cool offers a strained replay in which Chili wanders into, and in short order conquers, the music industry.
That said, Steinfeld's adaptation is a mess. Most irritating is the promiscuity with which he refers back to Get Shorty.
The occasional nod would be fine, but Steinfeld crams in enough to give
a viewer whiplash. Scarcely a conversation takes place without someone
repeating a line from the earlier film. (I counted more than 30 such
quotations, and doubtless missed some.) Nor is the 1990s
nostalgia-tripping limited to Get Shorty. The movie's most
famous--and most irritating--inside joke is a tedious dance scene
between Travolta and co-star Uma Thurman, which is in the film only to
remind us that the two of them danced together far more memorably in Pulp Fiction. As with most of the cinematic winks sprinkled throughout Be Cool, this one has no real thought or purpose behind it. It neither lives up to the original scene nor subverts it. It's just there, an unsubtle reminder by Gray and Steinfeld that they, too, have seen a Tarantino film. Bravo.
In addition to entombing itself in allusions, Be Cool
suffers from performances both under- and overdone. In his second go as
Chili Palmer, Travolta demonstrates the fineness of the line between
cool and dull by spending most of the movie on the wrong side of it. As
Edie Athens, Chili's recently widowed love interest, Thurman registers
still less. Her character was peripheral in the novel, and in expanding
the role Steinfeld declined to give her anything much to do other than
hang around looking vaguely uncomfortable. By contrast, Vince Vaughn
registers all too well as Raji, the sleazy talent manager who is one of
Chili's many foils. The role is a spastic, imbecile variation on Gary
Oldman's white-pimp-who-thinks-he's-black from True Romance; with it, Vaughn gives the most annoying performance of a career that, even on its best days, is never far from offering annoyance.