Given my interest in cinema, it comes as no surprise that my favorite topic of interest for a screenplay is the film industry itself. Tinseltown’s unique blend of commerce and art, its insular nature, the big personalities that run the studios and star in their films, and the never-ending scandals and secrets that pervade the industry together makes for fascinating fodder for a screenplay. There have been a number of excellent films about the film industry, namely The Player, Sunset Boulevard, Ed Wood, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In 1995, another noteworthy movie about the movie industry was released, Get Shorty. An adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name, it was released with much fanfare due to its big cast (John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Danny Devito, and Rene Russo), big name director (Barry Sonnenfeld), and Travolta’s massive resurgence from the previous year’s Pulp Fiction. I have to admit that I didn’t care for the movie initially. I felt it tried too hard to be like Pulp Fiction, especially with John Travolta being cast as a gangster, which is what he played in Pulp Fiction. However, upon multiple subsequent viewings, I grew a deep respect for the film and I now I consider it one of the best films about Hollywood.

In true pulp novel fashion, Get Shorty has a convoluted plot that requires close attention or else you will easily get lost and not enjoy the movie (as I did the first time I saw it). Its basically about a Miami shylock (Travolta) who works for the mob. He’s very good at what he does, but he doesn’t enjoy it. His dream has always been to work in the movie business. One day, he gets assigned to go out to Vegas and track down a “client” (David Paymer) who owes the mob $300K. Travolta goes out there and is then asked by a casino owner if he would go out to L.A. and collect on yet another debt that’s owed to the casino owner. The debtor is a B-movie film producer (Hackman), which peaks Travolta’s interest. This is finally his chance to go to L.A. and get into the movie business. Travolta goes to L.A. and meets with Hackman, who listens to Travolta’s pitch for a movie. Hackman is interested and he gets Travolta in on a secret screenplay he has that he hopes to produce. The problem is that Hackman doesn’t have the money to buy the screenplay so Travolta helps him out. Involved in all of this is a crooked investor (Delroy Lindo) who has invested in Hackman’s films and he finds out about Hackman’s secret script. There is also a rival gangster from Miami who arrives in L.A. to find Travolta. Finally, we also have Danny Devito, who plays a huge movie star that Rene Russo and Travolta are trying to get to star in Hackman’s movie.

In the hands of a lesser writer, making a film noir comedy about mobsters and Hollywood but without the dark atmospheric undertones of a typical film noir is likely to be a recipe for disaster. Your task is to take a large number of subplots and tie them together in a coherent and interesting fashion without sacrificing the comedy or character development (and without losing your audience). In a novel, this is easier to accomplish because you can spend as much time as you want to unspool your story and develop your characters. However, in the roughly 2 hour time frame of a movie, this is a tall order and you must be extremely efficient with each minute. Scott Frank (Minority Report, Out of Sight, Marley & Me), the screenwriter, does a remarkable job in adapting Elmore Leonard’s novel. Whats more, he didn’t even need 2 hours to tell the story as the movie clips along at a brisk 1 hour 44 minutes.

Again, if you follow the movie closely and don’t get lost, you will find yourself completely engaged by the plot and the characters. The mobsters and Hollywood types are clichés, but they’re supposed to be. The film purposely plays up all the stereotypes of the movie industry and gangsters. Travolta’s character as the shylock is cool, composed, and he’s always 1 step ahead of the game. Hackman is the cheesy B-movie horror film producer who longs for respect but can’t get any. Russo is the scream queen actress, long jaded by the industry. Dennis Farina, in a great career-making role, plays a Miami mobster who seems to come straight out of a Martin Scorsese movie. Danny Devito is the self-absorbed mega movie star who does shit like order off the restaurant menu because he can. And so on. However, unlike a film like The Player where you need to be familiar with the movie industry to better appreciate the film, Get Shorty’s plot holds up on its own. If you get the inside industry jokes, you’ll enjoy it more, but its not necessary to get involved in the film.

Travolta is clearly cashing in on his Vincent character from Pulp Fiction, which is not a bad thing. After Pulp Fiction, American audiences couldn’t seem to get enough of Travolta, especially in roles where he played a cool acting character. His Chili Palmer character here is the closest thing to his Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega character. I like that his character isn’t a totally nice guy. He’s got a bit of the asshole in him and that makes for a more complex and interesting character.

I really miss seeing Hackman in the movies (his last role was in 2004 in a forgettable film called Welcome to Mooseport). Talk about a chameleon! How many actors do you know who can go from playing a low-class B-movie horror producer to a stern submarine captain (Crimson Tide) to a conservative Senator (The Birdcage) in 1 year? You don’t know whether to despise his character here, feel sorry for him, or like him. He’s an opportunist in which his only loyalty lies in whatever his next project is. He’s willing to screw over anyone to get his project made. Hackman didn’t make a lot of comedies, but in the ones he did, he was absolutely great in them.

Danny Devito is the shortest non-midget I know. Because of this, he’s very effective as a comedian because he’s vulgar and a swearing short man is hilarious. Along with Hackman’s character, Devito’s parody of your typical movie star is spot on. Its great to know that Devito is self-effacing enough to be willing to poke fun at himself.

Rene Russo is another actor who I don’t see much of these days and its too bad because she seemed to be emerging in Hollywood as the next Kathleen Turner. In Get Shorty, she doesn’t play sultry, but she’s sexy in her own right and her performance just seems so effortless that you wonder whether she’s really just playing herself.

The cast is rounded out by wonderful performances by Delroy Lindo (who is one of the scariest gangsters I know in movies), Dennis Farina (an ex-Chicago cop in real life who ironically plays a gangster here), David Paymer (who plays his signature loser here), and a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini.

Get Shorty is a funny parody of the interaction between the mob and Hollywood that ranks among the best films about the movie industry. A sequel of sorts was made 10 years later where Chili Palmer decides to go into the music business. I can’t speak for the novel it was based on, but the film was one of the worst films of 2005. Get Shorty, on the other hand, holds up great and its one of Travolta’s finest performances.

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