"Be Cool" fails to hit the right notes

Some very good movies have been made from the works of writer Elmore Leonard, such as "Out of Sight" and "Get Shorty," both adapted by screenwriter Scott Frank. "Be Cool," the sequel to "Get Shorty" based on the 1999 Leonard book of the same name and adapted by Peter Steinfeld ("Analyze That"), is not one of them.

Directed by F. Gary Gray ("The Italian Job"), "Be Cool" is a movie that really wants to be a music video. Unfortunately, it keeps turning into one, as if the director had wandered off for a cup of coffee, leaving the movie to its own devices. Chili Palmer (John Travolta), the gangster-turned-film-producer in "Get Shorty," here stumbles into the music business through some plot machinations involving a drive-by shooting, a hot widow/record executive (Uma Thurman, looking like she could use some sunscreen) and an up-and-coming star (newcomer Christina Milian).

Like "Get Shorty," the film is packed full of oddball characters, some of whom are amusing: Cedric the Entertainer as an overeducated music producer trying too hard to be street; Harvey Keitel as the cranky head of a management company; The Rock as a bodyguard who's not so tough. (Blink and you'll miss Danny DeVito, returning as diminutive movie star Martin Weir.)

Travolta and Thurman have a bit of chemistry, but they're taking it easy, turning in performances so laid-back the characters rarely emerge. And Milian is problematic: She's certainly lovely, and a competent singer, but the plot focuses around her being The Next Big Thing, when she really seems interchangeable with any of those young women who wear too much eyeshadow on "American Idol." The film frequently stops to worship her as she sings; and she doesn't seem distinctive enough to justify the star treatment.

They're all stranded in a screenplay that never congeals, shifting from character to character while trying desperately to find some traction. "Be Cool" is very self-conscious, full of jokes about itself that are too arch to be funny: Travolta comments on the lameness of sequels; Steven Tyler (of Aerosmith), in a cameo role, notes that "I'm not one of those singers who shows up in movies."

And the worst offender is the much-hyped dance scene with Travolta and Thurman, in desperate homage to their famous boogie in "Pulp Fiction." Yes, they've danced together before, but it's not good filmmaking to make them do it again, unless there's a reason for it, or unless it's done so stylishly that it creates its own excuse. Here, they slouch around the floor to some forgettable dance track, and there's nothing remotely interesting about it. Lightning rarely strikes in the same place twice, and certainly not here.

"Be Cool" keeps wandering off on tangents, and after a while its audience does, too: You find yourself focusing on the interesting way that gravity is affecting Tyler's mouth (his famous lips are headed south, like wayward explorers), or the fact that Keitel looks like he could be Sean Penn's dad. Wouldn't it be fun to see the two of them as some sort of father-son law-enforcement duo, running around defending Jude Law from Oscar-night abuse? That's a movie I'd like to see; alas, it's not the movie I saw.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 1.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Be Cool," with John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Vince Vaughn, Cedric the Entertainer, Andr Benjamin, Steven Tyler, Robert Pastorelli, Christina Milian, Harvey Keitel, The Rock, Danny DeVito. Directed by F. Gary Gray, from a screenplay by Peter Steinfeld, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. 115 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence, sensuality and language including sexual references. Several theaters.