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Dated 'Be Cool' comes up short-y

Despite its title, there's nothing cool about F. Gary Gray's adaptation of novelist Elmore Leonard's punch-drunk music-biz satire, ''Be Cool."

The book was published in 1999, and what was keenly ridiculous in print seems clueless and uncouth onscreen now. Gray embraces the inanities Leonard seemed to be lampooning.

The movie offers a Los Angeles where a band of gun-toting would-be gangsta rappers in throwback jerseys are led by a Wharton School graduate; where a white Jewish man thinks he's a black pimp; and where Aerosmith is the key to a rising young pop star's success.

Barely any of it is funny, and if a minute of it is meant in mockery, few of the darts ever find the board.

''Be Cool" is the sequel to Barry Sonnenfeld's 1995 ''Get Shorty," which was also a vehicle for John Travolta. The decade that's passed between the two movies feels like a lifetime, with each picture filling opposing seats on a career seesaw.

In ''Get Shorty," Travolta was at the height of his great comeback, untouchable and suavely comic. In reprising his role as the Brooklyn-raised loan shark turned Hollywood operator Chili Palmer, the actor returns to a more confident version of himself. The ham he's become of late is now a leaner, tanner, less laughable presence.

For a change, the problems with a lame John Travolta movie do not originate with Travolta. They're more the fault of Peter Steinfeld's watery adaptation and Gray's uncertain direction.

The film's plot picks up with Chili having hit it big as a Hollywood movie producer. When his garrulous record-business buddy Tommy (James Woods) is gunned down, Chili finds himself trying to simultaneously solve the case, rescue Tommy's production studio, woo Tommy's gorgeous wife Edie (Uma Thurman), a producer and former Aerosmith groupie, and launch the career of a pop singer named Linda Moon (Christina Milian) by attempting to buy her out of her contract to a dubious management company goon (Harvey Keitel).

Wait, there's more: racist Russian mobsters; that pimp (Vince Vaughn); his gay, aspiring-actor bodyguard (Dwayne ''The Rock" Johnson); those armed gangsta rappers; Debi Mazar as a cop with hair that begins as a pompadour and ends in a mullet; and the Wharton grad/remix producer (Cedric the Entertainer), who wants Edie to pay him money Tommy owed him.

They all have an eye on Chili, and in the novel the fight to get his attention made for a breezy good time. Here it's just desperate.

''Be Cool" so wants to be a collection of mini-showcases for actors such as the sporadically funny Vaughn and Johnson, who gamely toys with his image, playing the semi-manly sort of giant he made fun of back in his pro-wrestling days. Meanwhile, OutKast's Andre Benjamin plays one of the gangsta rappers, the one who's never shot a gun.

Gray can't get much traction with any satire of these people, this town, or the music business. He makes you long for Sonnenfeld's visual wit and seamless blend of suspense and delicately wrought comedy.

''Get Shorty" was released a few months after Gray's easygoing porchbound comedy ''Friday," which had only a handful of characters and low-key energy. Gray now seems indifferent to such patient style. He's more comfortable muscling his way through action sequences in a movie like ''The Italian Job." For him, the joke in ''Be Cool" is not on the page, it's in the casting, and that turns laborious fast.

The movie is also leaded with allusions to other films, with its most blatant thefts coming from ''Pulp Fiction." Cedric has a moment of ''furious anger" akin to Samuel L. Jackson's in Quentin Tarantino's movie. Maybe Cedric's speech about black culture's influence on the world would ring truer were he not steering a posse of black-male stereotypes.

Another borrowed passage features Travolta and Thurman having chit-chat at a table in a nightclub, before busting some wiggly moves on the dance floor just as they did 11 years ago. The smoky Chuck Berry song they originally twisted to has been replaced with the unseasoned hip-hop of the Black Eyed Peas. It's a moment so lifeless and sexless and sad that it feels less like an homage and more like a Visa commercial. That's not entertainment, it's rechewed gum.

''Be Cool" is too lazy to earn its comedy and too self-amused to make any points about music or its industry. You pity Chili and Edie because their determination to make Linda famous speaks to their terrible taste and, by extension, the movie's. The whole thing is so passé it deserves to win a Grammy.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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