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Get Shorty (1995)

Cast: Eric Mansker, Eric Mansker, Jophery Brown, more...
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld, Barry Sonnenfeld
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Studio: MGM
Genre: Comedies
Running Time: 105 min.
Languages: English, Spanish, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
    see additional details...

A gangster is looking to get away from crooked deals and double-crossing people but ends up in the movie business anyway in this comic crime story. Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is a Miami-based loan collector for the mob trying to collect a gambling debt. His assignment takes him to Hollywood to collect money from Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), a mildly sleazy producer of low-budget horror movies. Although Chili intends to hurt Harry if necessary, he takes a certain liking to him and an even keener interest in Karen (Rene Russo), Harry's girlfriend, whom Chili recognizes from Harry's Grade B monster epics. It seems Harry has a script that he feels is Academy Award material, and he could get the project off the ground if he could get the right actor for the lead -- say, the well-respected but egocentric (and diminutive) Martin Weir (Danny De Vito). Chili thinks he has a feel for the movie business and decides to see what he can do to persuade Weir to get behind the project. Chili soon finds himself hip deep in the film industry, which at least puts him in contact with a higher grade of scumbags than he's used to. But Chili isn't the only criminal Harry's been dealing with; he's been obtaining financing from Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo), a drug dealer with a highly uncertain temperament. An intelligently constructed crime story and a hilarious look at the absurdities of the film business, Get Shorty was based on the novel of the same name by Elmore Leonard; Leonard based Chili on a real-life former gangster of his acquaintance, though Chili's model never worked in Hollywood. ~ Mark Deming, All Movie Guide

GreenCine Member Reviews

Derivation? by nathan April 28, 2003 - 4:24 PM PDT
2 out of 3 members found this review helpful
Economic life in the 1980s and the 1990s were characterized by a rise of the financial terror called "derivatives". Somewhat similar in concept to "futures," derivatives are essentially "bets" made by investors with regard to how financial markets will behave in the future. With futures, one might "bet" that the price of wheat will be at a particular place six months from now--and make an investment based on that hunch. A wrong hunch and one can loose big.

With derivatives, the betting gets more complicated. For instance, one might bet that the price of wheat when divided by the change in the exchange rate of the dollar to the yen will be greater than the square of the German inflation rate when that rate is growing at a greater pace than the wholesale price of oil being sold by non-OPEC countries. Or something like that. In reality, derivatives are substantially more complicated. And the suggestion is that many of the people creating them (and most of the people buying them) don't really understand how these investments will fair.

There have been numerous stories of various municipalities loosing their working capital, pension funds, and so on, due to the unpredictable and incomprehensible nature of these investments. Orange County is one example.

In art there are derivatives, too. These are similar to the derivatives of financial markets in only two major ways. First, both share the same word (derivative). Second, both are dangerous if not handled properly. Get Shorty, now playing locally, is at least a partial example of this danger. Get Shorty isn't a bad movie. But it is frightfully derivative.

Sometimes a piece of art is useful not because it is a particularly notable work but because it reminds us of (or introduces us for the first time to) other, better creations. Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty is just such a film. In its derivation it underscores the quality of the films it draws from while inadvertently failing to deliver their pith.

There are two principle films from which Sonnenfeld's film (adapted from a novel by Elmore Leonard) takes its cues. First, we have shades of Altman's The Player, right down to the crowning glory of a struggling-outside-the-mainstream-movie-maker with an Altman-esque goatee. Here we have a double-derivation. First, Sonnenfeld is making a direct reference to The Player's creator. Second, the constantly self-referential nature of each of the stories becomes an integral part of the plot device. In The Player the plot pivots around a murder whose story becomes the possible basis for a future film--and the discussion of which becomes the a means for the characters in the film to deal with a murder that has actually happened.

Get Shorty uses the interplay of part of it's plot and a discussion about the same series of events by the characters in the film (in the context of creating a movie) to similarly move the story along. Whether one prefers The Player's use of this device to Get Shorty's may be a matter of personal taste. In Altman's film, most of the characters are unaware of the interplay occurring. The audience is the main confident and insider into the parallels between the action on the screen and the movie ideas being discussed by the characters.

In Get Shorty, everyone is in on the interplay. And, when one of the characters is slow to catch on (for example, in the interrupted discussion between Zimm and Palmer the evening of their first encounter), this lack of savvy becomes the source of a joke. If one prefers the more complex interaction of the audience with the film elicited by The Player, one is bound to be disappointed by Get Shorty's appropriation (and watering down?) of this device.

The other major recent film from which Get Shorty derives many of its elements is Pulp Fiction. It appears that John Travolta may have gone from being typecast as teen idol to a cuddly gangster. Not a bad move, but there are many instances in Get Shorty where he seems to be reprising his Pulp Fiction role rather than charting new territory.

The similarities in casting are mimicked in the similarities in musical selection. Here again are powerful sounding rock-and-roll tunes underscoring the major events and mood shifts of the film's narrative. Unfortunately, Sonnenfeld (or whoever he hired to select the songs for the film) doesn't possess the keen, dark musical sense of humor (combined with an impressive breadth of sources) to pull off the "hip score" trip in the manner Tarantino achieved.

The direction, the gangsters, the dialogue and the music all strive to reach the kind of synergy Pulp Fiction created but consistently fail to do so. What we are left with is a decidedly less ambiguous discrepancy between the source and its derivation than when examining the manner in which Get Shorty draws on The Player. Undoubtedly, Pulp Fiction--flawed as it may be when contrasted with Tarantino's masterpiece, Reservoir Dogs -- played this game much better.


Of course, it has been have pointed out to me that some interesting items regarding this film aren't considered in my account of the work not in it's relationship with other films (what I term "derivation"). First, and most striking, are the ways in which Elmore Leonard's novels and Tarantino are all intermingled, to the point where calling one derivative of another is pointless: Get Shorty was based on a Leonard novel, Leonard admires Tarantino, Tarantino speaks of the influence on him of Leonard's novels, Tarantino's Jackie Brown is based on a Leonard novel, etc, though Leonard is arguably the father of the relationship. Second, as is apparent from those who have explored Hong Kong cinema, Tarantino's "best film" (Dogs) is terribly derivative, vis, Lam's City on Fire.

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