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It has been half a century since the star-struck gangster Bugsy Siegel arranged a screen test for himself (alas, his gifts lay elsewhere), and more than two decades since assorted soldiers from the Lucchese and Gambino crime families stood around the Godfather set giving Mafia style tips to Marlon Brando and Al Pacino.

Nothing's changed. Wiseguys still seem to like movies almost as much as Hollywood likes them, and that's the solid foundation of Get Shorty, a buoyant underworld comedy that never forgets how to talk tough or, when need be, to flex a little muscle.

Over the years, best-selling crime writer Elmore Leonard has had his artistic ups (52 Pickup) and downs (Stick) out Tinseltown way, so it came as no surprise when he shot the place up a little in his surprisingly funny 1990 novel about a Miami loan shark, Chili Palmer, who goes out to L.A. to collect a debt and winds up as a movie producer. Chili is a role John Travolta may have been born to play, and he enlivens the film version of Get Shorty with just the right mixture of hard street savvy and disarming sweetness--approximately the same combination that distinguished his junkie hit man in Pulp Fiction.

"I like it out here," the ever-confident Chili announces, and he starts to bloom before our eyes. The best part, though, is that they--the locals, that is--like him even more. The faultless comic engine of the movie, which was deftly directed by Addams Family guardian Barry Sonnenfield, is the contrast between the no-nonsense hood whose weakness is his passion for the movies and the vain predators of the movie industry, whose weakness is Chili's "authenticity." This is the same vein Woody Allen mined with the playwright/goon of Bullets Over Broadway, and who could imagine a more perfect real-life model than the dapper don himself, John Gotti? Back in the (pre-penitentiary) Eighties, Gotti's camera-ready theatrics before media and public made Bugsy Siegel look like a shy Presbyterian.

A professor of the hard-boiled school, Leonard once said of his writing: "I try to leave out the parts that people skip." Luckily, his collaborators here seem to agree. The plot gets a little complicated in places, but the screenplay by Scott Frank (Dead Again) is masterfully swift and concise, and the actors never pause to chew over their lines. In his movie-star shades and black hustler's vines, Travolta's Chili is cool, sleek and charming, and he's surrounded by one of the most enjoyable supporting casts of the year. The great professional Gene Hackman, who's stolen many a movie in his time, very nearly does it again. His Harry Zimm, the low-rent Hollywood producer who owes the bad boys 150K, favors flared pants, trendy jewelry and "creative" utterances that not even he seems to understand. But Chili is snowed by Zimm's perch in life, so he not only threatens him, he pitches a suspiciously familiar script idea at him--just like everyone else in L.A. The results are funnier than almost anything in Robert Altman's industry satire, The Player, and they reveal with glee the evil, foolish things people like Hackman, Travolta and Elmore Leonard know about show biz.

Meanwhile, we've got Rene Russo as Harry's girlfriend, Karen Flores, a B-movie actress with higher things (and, eventually, Chili) on her mind, and Danny De Vito as the hottest actor in town, Martin Weir, who can push bigger guys around with his clout but can't seem to resist Chili's style when the loan-shark-turned-producer tracks him down to star in his movie. Before long, Martin's doing his own actorish take on the visitor from Miami; simultaneously, Chili's doing lunch and taking meetings.

It's no surprise that Hollywood comes off as shallow and sycophantic (what's new?), but Get Shorty fairly breezes along, and there's hardly any meanness--and even less seriousness--in it. This is the kind of caricature it's easy to embrace, even out on the edges of the picture, where a celebrity-conscious drug dealer (Delroy Lindo) and a wonderfully paranoid mob rival named Bones Barboni (Dennis Farina) peddle their wares. In the end, the notion that a loan shark can conquer Tinseltown with his charm is irresistible; that some of the biggest fish in that pond take so much pleasure in poking fun at themselves is even more so. For its comic tone, Get Shorty may have been a departure for tough guy Elmore Leonard, but it signals the arrival of one of the most entertaining movies of the year.

 
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