Get Shorty and Mob Meta-Movies

This week, we said goodbye to actor James Gandolfini. His talents will continue to be appreciated in roles in The Sopranos and films like Get Shorty. The following is an excerpt from If You Like The Sopranos… by Leonard Pierce.

When Elmore Leonard penned the comic crime novel Get Shorty in 1990, the idea that the mob had become a self-aware entity was well established. Presaging the way the characters in The Sopranos would endlessly watch GoodFellas and The Godfather, the Mafiosi of the 1970s and 1980s fussed over their depiction in popular culture, and Gambino family boss John Gotti, with his expensive suits and fancy cars, developed a reputation as the first godfather of the media age. But when the film version of Get Shorty was released in 1995, it represented something new: it wasn’t just a mob movie, but a mob meta-movie; not only were the characters aware of their status in pop culture, but the movie was specifically made as a movie aware of the tropes of the gangster picture and willing to have a little fun with them. Rarely had so many disparate elements come together to present an image of the crime film that goofed around with what it had been—and hinted at what it would become.

Get Shorty tells the tale of a Miami loan shark named Chili Palmer (breezily portrayed by John Travolta in high post–Pulp Fiction spirits) who, on his way to collect a debt in Las Vegas, is sidetracked into chasing down a dissolute Hollywood producer. Chili, a film buff whose media self-awareness both predates and outstrips Christopher Moltisanti’s, decides that while he’s got the producer in the palm of his hand, he’ll pitch his own idea for a movie—one based on his own life story. Surprisingly, the producer bites; even more surprisingly, it sets off a bidding war with another loan shark, the menacing Bo Catlett (the always excellent Delroy Lindo). Complications ensue.

On the way to its conclusion—which gives plenty a knowing wink to fans of meta-movies—what makes Get Shorty so enjoyable is how deftly it handles both the action and thrills of a crime drama and the punchy, unexpected rhythms of a comedy. Much of this is due to its excellent cast and crew. Director Barry Sonnenfeld, before he moved on to big-time blockbusters, had been the cinematographer for the Coen brothers and learned a few things from them about blending comedy and crime. Travolta and Lindo are joined by a great supporting cast, including the consummately pro fessional Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito in the title role, and Dennis Farina as Palmer’s rival. Catlett’s partner Bear, who plays a key role in the film’s denouement, is played by none other than James Gandolfini, four years before his debut as Tony Soprano.

Crime comedies, and mob comedies in particular, tend to be a pretty dreary lot, but Sonnenfeld and his crew, given such a prime piece of source material, turn in a lively, entertaining example of how to do it right. Elmore Leonard is perfect for this sort of project. (And note that in 2010, the FX crime drama Justified—based on a Leonard short story and starring Deadwood veteran Timothy Olyphant, and strongly influenced by The Sopranos’ serial narrative revolution—debuted to universal praise.)

If You Like The Sopranos… is the first book that starts with Tony and the gang in their humble homes in the Garden State and explores the astonishing amount of great films, TV shows, and other pop-culture wonders that any fan of the Sopranos will love. From The Godfather andBonnie and Clyde to The Wire, to lesser-known noirs, Jimmy Cagney classics, contemporary HBO dramas, Martin Scorsese’s best work, and even the rock’n’roll that inspired the classicSopranos soundtrack, this is the one book that every fan needs if he or she ever has to go on the lam.

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About HLPAPG

Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group, the trade book division of Hal Leonard Corporations, publishes books on the performing arts under the imprints Hal Leonard Books, Backbeat Books, Amadeus Press, and Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.

Posted on June 21, 2013, in Film & TV and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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