Friday, May 2, 2014

Get Shorty vs. Wanted

By now I hope you'd have faith that I could use enough tortured logic to connect these two films: one, a mobbed-up showbiz comedy about a loan shark following the money when he really would rather be in the movie business; the other about a sad-sack office drone who discovers he's really one of the secret masters/caretakers of the world and then discovers that the group is really villainous. One is from a book by Elmore Leonard, one of the masters of the underworld comedy; the other is from a comic book written by Mark Miller, an author who has rapidly fallen down the hole of self-parody and empty spectacle at the best of times. (At the worst of times, his spectacle is actually reprehensible rather than empty.)

So, two radically different films that are connected by... the fact that I watched them both this week. Sure, we could notice other similarities and telling differences: both Chili Palmer (Get Shorty) and Wesley Gibson (Wanted) are people in new worlds, with Chili learning about the high life and low-lives of Hollywood and Wesley learning about the secret assassin conspiracy that keeps the world balanced. And maybe each has some bit of moral ambiguity, with bad people who might be good.

But really, what sets them apart is more interesting and more instructive. Get Shorty is fun and funny, with well-structured transitions between scenes; Wanted is an adenoidal mess, that revels in disconnected and dumb set-pieces--train crash, car flipping assassination, naked Angelina Jolie--rather than giving us any character or reason to care. The humor of Wanted is spiteful in those few scenes that could actually be said to be funny, which results in that oddest of combinations: the popcorn spectacle that takes itself too seriously.

And worse than all that: it's boring.

Part of that boredom is baked into the premise, if you're a nihilistic jerkoff: Wesley Gibson is a sad-sack loser who has to learn that he matters and also where he comes from--which means that his triumph looks a lot like beating up other people and getting awesome revenge, bro, because he matters. And so the movie moves predictably through the numbers: Wesley is victimized, Wesley learns the truth, Wesley won't take it anymore, blah blah blah. It's the cinematic equivalent of a toddler throwing a tantrum: I MATTER! Sure, fine, but you're not the only one.

Whereas Get Shorty particularly excels because everyone is given their moment in the spotlight. Sure, some people are dumb, some are venal, some are violent--but they all come across like real people. In fact, Chili Palmer's secret weapon is that he cares about people: he'll get a tip from a "widow" because he's a good guy, he'll get extra help from a stuntman-turned-enforcer-and-dad by treating him like a human being, etc.

So in a way, Chili Palmer succeeds for the same reason that Get Shorty succeeds: because he and it accepts that other people matter, too.


  1. Get Shorty is such a good movie - you can just tell everyone on screen is having fun. Now you've got me watching clips on YouTube!

    1. There are so many good parts to rewatch, from

      Harry Zimm: You pack a gun?
      Chili Palmer: Not really.

      To Chili and Bo talking about how easy it is to write a script:

      Bo Catlett: There's nothin' to know. You have an idea, you write down what you wanna say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren't positive yourself.