He may live someplace in Michigan, but make no mistake about it: Elmore Leonard knows Hollywood. Tinseltown has been turning Leonard’s novels into movies for more than 25 years now, from Hombre and The Big Bounce in the ’60s to 52 Pick-Up and Stick in the ’80s. Some of the films have been lousy, some decent or better; Leonard has written a few of the screenplays himself. And certainly moviemaking hasn’t been an entirely joyless experience for the man from Michigan. He dedicates this new novel to ”one of the good guys”-Walter Mirisch, who produced Leonard’s 1974 vehicle for Charles Bronson, Mr. Majestyk.
But don’t look for nostalgia or glamour in the up-to-date Los Angeles of Get Shorty. This is a Hollywood dominated by sleazeballs and phonies and hacks, an ugly (if often hilarious) amalgam of expensive suits and cheap power plays. It’s the perfect place, in fact, for a smart, nervy, small-time crook (and passionate movie fan) to spread his wings — someone like Ernesto ”Chili” Palmer, the not-quite-hero of Leonard’s latest sort-of-thriller.
Originally from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, Chili — so named for his infinite cool — has spent the past dozen or so years as the laid-back enforcer for a mob-connected loan-sharking operation in Miami. (”All he had to do was turn his eyes dead when he looked at a slow pay, not say more than three words, and the guy would sell his wife’s car to make the payment.”) But then a dry cleaner named Leo Devoe fakes his own death, embezzles $300,000, and skips town still owing the Miami mob more than $15,000. So Chili sets off in pursuit, and eventually, after some neat private-eyemanship, trails Leo and the loot (what’s left of it) to the Beverly Hills Hotel.
This serviceable plot soon becomes the merest subplot, however. Because, once in Hollywood, Chili attaches himself — more or less on a whim — to fat, nervous Harry Zimm, a schlock movie producer (Grotesque, Slime Creatures, and 47 similar others) in major trouble. Harry, you see, has optioned a great screenplay, his first ”high concept” project, and has a good chance of landing megasuperstar Michael Weir for the lead if he can come up with $500,000 in ”earnest money.” But Harry hasn’t a dime, having just lost over $200,000 betting on basketball in Las Vegas — money from investors that was supposed to have been spent on another quickie horror flick (”about a band of killer circus freaks”). Worse yet, the primary investor in question isn’t your usual financial type: He’s Bo Catlett, a glitzed-up psychopath who runs a limo service as a front for selling dope to the rich and famous. And Bo wants Harry to begin production on Freaks pronto — or give the $200,000 back, with interest.
Can Chili, an out-of-towner and show-biz neophyte, handle the messy job of being Harry’s new guardian angel? Just watch him. When vicious Bo sets him up to be arrested on a drug rap, Chili not only eludes the trap (cleverly) but also uses it to rid himself of a bothersome old enemy from Miami.
More surprisingly, Chili proves himself to be a natural when it comes to dealing with swinish agents, ruthless studio execs, and self-involved Method actors. He quickly masters the latest Hollywood jargon. (”There were a lot of terms you had to learn, as opposed to the shylock business where all you had to know how to say was ‘Give me the f— money.”’) He learns — from psycho Bo, of all people — how to analyze a screenplay. Thanks to sheer chutzpah and a certain gift, he even finds willing ears when he starts pitching his own movie idea to the powers that be: It’s about this loan shark from Miami who’s trailing a dry cleaner named Leo…
Leonard, always a wry and knowing novelist, is at his most playful in Get Shorty, using stories within stories to toy around with the whole idea of storytelling. What makes a ”good story” for the movies? Is it the same for books? How much are our notions of ”real” or ”true” subliminally based on fiction from Hollywood and elsewhere? Leonard touches down on these issues only lightly, obliquely. Nobody is going to start calling him a postmodernist. But there’s an added dimension, an extra wink, to Leonard’s irony this time around.
Not that his usual, reliably entertaining dimensions are shortchanged here. As ever, the dialogue — of which there’s plenty, delivered in everything from gangsterese to movie-studio psycho-babble — is juicy yet believable, free of contrived one-liners and show-offy set pieces. The action sequences, featuring Chili’s run-ins with Bo’s henchmen (including a former stuntman known only as ”the Bear”), maintain a perfect balance between horror and farce. And Leonard’s pacing remains quite simply the best in the business.
Still, though Chili is great fun to watch, he’s not so easy to care about. And when it comes time for the do-or-die showdown with lethal Bo, you’re leaning back and enjoying the show instead of sitting on the edge of your seat. So, unlike last year’s Killshot, this isn’t Leonard at his absolute best. Never mind. Get Shorty earns full points for black-comic thrills and Hollywood satire. Not so incidentally — if they don’t louse it up — it’ll make a terrific movie. A-