- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

When you can’t wow ‘em with story, wow ‘em with stars. Lots and lots of stars. That’s the operating theory behind “Be Cool” and its overstuffed promotion poster.

“Cool’s” crowd isn’t the kind of continual parade of surprise drop-bys you see in Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller movies; there, the new faces say “Hi,” you say, “Hey, look, it’s so-and-so,” and then they split. Here, they stick around, creating a pell-mell profusion of characters, any one of whom could have been dumped without injury to the plot.

Steven Tyler doesn’t just appear in the stands of an L.A. Lakers game; he figures into the story and invites us onstage with Aerosmith, where we meet … Joe Perry.

Here’s that plot: Everyone is after Chili Palmer (John Travolta). The hitman-turned-movie executive of 1995’s “Get Shorty” is disillusioned at having a sequel foisted on him (heh-heh). So he quits movies and jumps into the music biz, trading one den of thieves for another.

This is somewhat flimsy. In Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Shorty,” Chili happily discovers that Hollywood’s no different than life as a wiseguy. The transition is an easy one. For him to get a case of idealism is a stretch. But let’s say, for yuks, that Chili’s conversion is legit. Why not go work for, say, a nursing home then? The music biz is hardly a place for revirginization.

Anyhow, after Chili picks up the pieces of a record label run by a slain friend (James Woods), he takes up with said friend’s widow (Uma Thurman) and, through no intention of his own, attracts the ire of Russian mafia goons; a management company honcho (Harvey Keitel) and his incompetent underling (Vince Vaughn); and a black record producer (Cedric the Entertainer) with a posse of gangbanging rappers.

When not aggressively plugging various consumer products, F. Gary Gray’s main mission, it seems, is to lampoon hip-hop culture. The “Italian Job” director, working from an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel, is very good at this, I must say.

Cedric the Entertainer’s boys (including OutKast rapper Andre Benjamin) haul around in menacing black Humvees, hide giant pistols in their low-riding trousers and generally scare the bejesus out of Angeleno suburbanites.

Mr. Vaughn’s Raji compensates for an inferiority complex by assuming a gangsta rapper pose. It’s not very funny at first, but Mr. Vaughn is a persistent showman. The always adventurous Mr. Keitel gets in on the act, too, wearing workout clothes in the office and sending shouts-out to soul brothers. The Rock, as Raji’s long-suffering assistant Elliot, provides a nice twist on all the in-your-face blackitude: He’s fastidiously well-spoken and possibly homosexual.

Where’s Mr. Travolta in all this? Practically sleepwalking. There’s none of the electricity or glee of his performance in “Shorty.” His Chili goes through all the motions of utter poise and coolness, especially when guns are pointing in his face. And yet there’s something incongruously serious about this Chili; it feels like teeth-pulling to follow him to the end of the plot (or maybe it was the near two-hours’ run time).

Mr. Travolta boogies down with “Pulp Fiction” co-star Miss Thurman again — how could they not? — but, as with much of “Be Cool,” the scene progresses with a forced sense of spontaneity.

Chili’s goal in “Cool” is to shepherd a young Dairy Queen diva (Christina Milian) to pop stardom. Maybe that’s what makes “Be Cool” such a plodder: It’s “American Idol,” with commercials.

**

TITLE: “Be Cool”

RATING: PG-13 (Strong language; violence; sensuality)

CREDITS: Directed by F. Gary Gray. Produced by Danny DeVito, David Nicksay, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher. Written by Peter Steinfeld, based on Elmore Leonard’s novel. Cinematography by Jeffrey L. Kimball. Original music by John Powell.

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes.

WEB SITE: https://www.mgm.com/becool/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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