Unsung Gems – ‘Get Shorty’ is crime comedy at its best

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Get Shorty
Directed by Barry Sonnenfield
Written by Scott Frank
USA, 1994

Due to the influence of a certain former video store employee turned Hollywood star, the mid 90’s proved to be something of a purgatory for many a mainstream crime film with stylistic and comedic ambitions. Just as Tarantino’s name became a huge seller in its own right, so was born the stigma of Tarantino-esque, a thinly veiled accusation of knock off and bandwagon boarding.

During this period, even the most notably entertaining of films were branded and dismissed due to this criteria, regardless of quality. Barry Sonnenfield’s 1995 effort Get Shorty, based on an Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, was one such victim.

It’s easy to see why such lazy generalizations were made at the time. After all, the film featured John Travolta in the lead role as an amiable gangster type, an assortment of dysfunctional supporting players spouting nicely constructed and often throwaway dialogue, and plenty of black humor lacing the noir plot. But it’s a disservice, an ignorant one at that, given that Get Shorty is funnier, faster and much lighter than QT’s back catalogue, and most crucially is sufficiently original and unique to be judged on its own creditable merits.

Travolta is Chilli Palmer, a grouchy cinema loving Miami loan shark growing weary of roughing up delinquents and sharing company with pompous fellow crime figures. When his boss keels over from a heart attack at a surprise birthday party, leadership passes over to Palmer’s least favorite associate, the ill tempered Ray Barboni (Dennis Farina), who immediately sends him to Vegas on the trail of a debt evading dry cleaner who has faked his own death. While there, he takes on another job, picking up a tab from Hollywood B-movie aficionado Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), and Palmer sees the chance to follow a different avenue in life.

Arriving at Zimm’s tinsel town home, Palmer pitches the hapless director/producer an idea for a movie, based on his own experiences. Enlisting the help of video nasty starlet Karen Flores (Rene Russo), who he quickly becomes smitten to, Palmer’s new venture sees him having to shake off drug dealer Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo), who wants a piece of Zimm’s enterprise, facing a toughening battle to secure the services of egotistical A-lister Martin Weir (Danny Devito, the ‘shorty’ of the title) as his star, as well as contending with the petty efforts of Barboni to scupper his plans.

As a story, it’s classic Leonard, and Scott Frank’s screenplay does wonders with transferring his irreverent, humorous dialogue into a workable blueprint while also keeping the various subplots and narrative strands together in a loosely disciplined, wholly satisfying mix. Beyond what’s already mentioned, there is also material dealing with Catlett’s dealings with a Colombian drug lord (Miguel Sandoval) that culminates in an unobtainable bag of money at the airport, the part played by Lindo’s right hand man Bear (James Gandolfini), a single parent ex-stuntman with a different ethical code to his boss, and Harry Zimm’s struggles to obtain rights to his late writer’s latest and greatest from the man’s would be femme fatale widow Doris (an uncredited Bette Midler).

Plenty to get one’s teeth around, and Sonnenfield shows the chops as a Director that would be notably lacking in his later career in ensuring things don’t become overly complicated. The key is that this a film that never takes itself seriously, no interest in gravitas and instead taking time to take potshots at the film industry and sly digs at the clichés and machinations of film noir and the crime thriller genre, as well as affectionate pastiche to B-movie tradition and monster movie cult followings. It’s quite telling that DeVito’s portrayal of Martin Weir, a hotshot with a little man complex and delusions of artful grandeur, struck too close a chord to Dustin Hoffman, who was convinced he was being lampooned.

While Get Shorty could easily have been a disposable parody/comedy, the volume and memorable nature of the laughs come from top notch casting of usually serious actors who show real flair for comic material. John Travolta continued his comeback to the top of his game with a likeable and eccentric take on Palmer, and as well as he handles the jokes the former dance floor heartthrob is convincingly menacing when his day job comes calling. Gene Hackman plays wonderfully against type as the delusional Harry Zimm, a pitiable figure who consistently gets out of depth in search of an ego trip, and Rene Russo is authentically and refreshingly alluring and strongly intelligent as Karen, a character with more depth than one would imagine.

While Hackman and DeVito prove to be highly humorous as sly digs at Hollywood figures, Dennis Farina is hilarious as mobster Ray Barboni, a foul mouthed and deeply cynical axe grinder best suited to misjudging situations and firing off mostly misplaced oaths and curses. Further strong support from Lindo, Gandolfini and Midler rounds off an excellently balanced cast who bring life to an already vibrant script. This is crime comedy at its best, the way it should be done; the action itself is grounded and serious albeit chaotic and far from simple, while the wit and giggles are provided by dialogue. Far from Tarantino, the motives and missteps of the players is more reminiscent of Coen-esque farcical stupidity.

The end product is an impeccably played, intelligent and highly fun outing that hits each beat and delivers multiple rewards on multiple levels to an open minded audience. While the finale may come across as a little cluttered in its attempt to bring closure to the multi-faceted plot, that overlapping style is simply part of the film’s significant charm.

Under no circumstances should its abhorrent and needless sequel Be Cool be considered when viewing this film, nor should it color its excellence. Ironically, a film often dealing with the chickenshit of Hollywood fell foul to it after the fact. It still is however, a gem, and certainly not a ‘Tarantino-esque’ gem.

Scott Patterson

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