Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago last month, was one of the most purely entertaining studio comedies of the 1990s.
Centered around a lead performance from John Travolta, whose career was once again hot a year after Pulp Fiction, this Elmore Leonard adaptation built its Hollywood satire around a brilliant conceit: Gangsters, deep down, really want to be showbiz players. And furthermore, being a criminal and a movie producer involve surprisingly similar skills.
Travolta, leading one of the decade’s best casts, starred as Chili Palmer, a Miami loan shark locked in a feud with rival gangster Ray “Bones” Barboni (Dennis Farina, never better). Sent to collect on a debt in Vegas from a dry cleaner (David Paymer) who faked his own death, Chili ends up in Los Angeles, where he meets up with schlock movie producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman). But rather than take his money, Chili would rather pitch Harry on his own idea for a movie.
Since Chili would rather be making movies than collecting debts, they all end up in business, squaring off with limo service owner/drug dealer/wannabe movie producer Bo (Delroy Lindo), along with his bodyguard (played by a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini).
The movie star they eye is Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), a conceited prestige actor. The complex plot also pulls in Colombian drug cartels, including “Escobar” (Miguel Sandoval, playing a drug lord in a movie one of several times in the ’90s). And in the world of this film, even the stand-in for Pablo Escobar wants to go to Universal Studios and “see the shark.”
Beyond the fantastic cast, which also includes Rene Russo as a schlock movie actress who becomes Chili’s love interest, the film is buoyed by outstanding dialogue, much of it straight from Leonard’s book. Get Shorty has countless great lines: “Who the fuck is Momo?” “E.g., i.e., fuck you,” “Who the fuck is Momo? Jesus, where do you get these names?” “They say the smog is the reason we have such beautiful sunsets.” “Fuck you, fuckball.”
Get Shorty joins Out of Sight, Jackie Brown and the TV series Justified as the best-ever adaptations of Leonard’s work.
Many more such films would arrive in the ensuing years, most of them not nearly as incisive or funny
The film followed The Player, Robert Altman’s lacerating Hollywood satire from 1992, by three years, but while that film was widely seen as Altman making a statement and settling scores, Get Shorty was more of a pure comedy about the absurdities of showbiz.
Many more such films would arrive in the ensuing years, most of them not nearly as incisive or funny. One of those was Be Cool, an atrocious sequel that arrived a decade later, without the participation of Sonnenfeld or Frank, and none of the original cast save from Travolta and DeVito. Be Cool took Chili into the music business, and forgot just about everything that was funny or biting about the first movie.
“It’s my favorite movie that I directed,” Sonnenfeld said of Get Shorty when I interviewed him earlier this year. The story of the making of Get Shorty took up two chapters in the director’s very entertaining memoir, Call Your Mother, including an incredible what-if story about how Warren Beatty was nearly cast as Chili Palmer.
“I really like that movie because it was so hard to get it made. It took almost five years. No one wanted to make an Elmore Leonard movie, and no one wanted to make a movie about Hollywood, and I just persisted and eventually got the movie made.”
Get Shorty joins Out of Sight, Jackie Brown and the TV series Justified as the best-ever adaptations of Leonard’s work
“Scott Frank did a brilliant job, writing a fantastic screenplay, based on Elmore Leonard’s book, and I loved the cast… It’s my favorite movie I directed, in part because it’s so smart and funny, and because I persevered after being turned down, twice, by every studio in Hollywood.”
Sonnenfeld had nothing to do with Be Cool, or with the Get Shorty TV show, which is only vaguely inspired by the movie and featured none of the same actors or characters. In fact, Sonnenfeld said he’s never seen the latter.
Get Shorty is not on any major streaming service, but it does run regularly on cable, including currently on Cinemax and its associated platforms.