It is not exactly news to note that familiar IP (intellectual property) is the coin of the entertainment realm these days. Why spend tens of millions trying to educate the public about a new premise or character or idea when you can just dust off one that’s already known and loved? In its third effort to make a splash in the original series pool, after the disappointing Graves and the worthwhile but underseen Berlin Station, EPIX is looking to do just that, but Get Shorty is not the lazy cash-in that it might appear.
Elmore Leonard’s novel is familiar to a few, but it’s Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 film adaptation, starring John Travolta, Danny Devito, Rene Russo, and Gene Hackman, that people remember, and one could be forgiven for assuming that this new series is a retread of that material, and thus that it’s less than essential. (Someone who may or may not be typing this right now may have made just such an assumption.)
Better to think of Get Shorty as a series adaptation of the movie the way FX’s Fargo is an adaptation of Fargo, the movie: a remix of the basic premise, with different characters. In the movie, Travolta played Chili Palmer, the muscle for a Miami loan shark who happens to go on a collection in Los Angeles, where he meets a movie producer, tells him an idea for a movie, and bing-bang-boom, Chili is a movie producer rubbing elbows with Hollywood royalty. (The movie’s title refers to the effort to enlist an Oscar-winning actor, played by the vertically challenged Danny Devito, into Chili’s project.) The movie is amusing is several places, and is certainly rewatchable (it’s been popping up a lot lady on the movie channels) but it looks like a big-budget movie — L.A. looks its Hollywood-dreams best and even Hackman’s B-movie producer works out of a huge, glossy office. Its plot is basically about the fact that Chili is the coolest guy in the history of the world, and that the entire world tends to fall into his lap as a result, which tends to sap any dramatic stakes. Worse, the movie has a certain self-satisfied tone — evident even in the movie’s posters, which have all four principals looking uber-cool in their dark Wayfarers — that has not aged well. (The 2005 sequel, titled Be Cool, has aged even worse.)
By contrast, the new Get Shorty takes the basic premise — a gangster sets about becoming a movie producer — and removes all of the glamour and about 90% of the cool. Miles Daly (Chris O’Dowd, Bridesmaids) is a low-level enforcer for a low-level crime boss in Pahrump, NV — about as far from South Beach cool as you can get. Miles is estranged from his wife, who freaked out when she walked in on him nursing a gunshot wound, as wives tend to do, and hopes that a career change will win back her and their daughter, who only knows that her parents are separated, but not why.
When Miles and his partner go to Los Angeles to collect a gambling debt from an aspiring screenwriter, who tried to finance a movie playing blackjack but went bust, Miles sees his opportunity, ends up with the script, and targets Rick Moreweather (Ray Romano), a B-movie producer, to partner with him and teach him the business.
Romano, who was by far the best thing in HBO’s Vinyl as a frustrated record company executive, continues his surprisingly stellar work as a character actor by playing Moreweather as stooped and world-weary, long since disabused of the notion that he is engaged in any kind of art form, just barely hanging on for survival, and manages to put all this across in a matter of moments. Topher Grace (That ‘70s Show), who has similarly found his groove in recent years playing spoiled a-holes, continues in that vein as the crybaby star of Moreweather’s latest production, whose schedule conflict on a project with Rick’s onetime protegé April (Megan Stevenson) forces Rick to beg her for help, and brings her into Miles’ orbit.
As Miles, O’Dowd finds the right balance between keenly intelligent and down on his luck. He is decidedly not Chili Palmer cool, and he does not control people’s minds, as Chili did in the movie, with an even stare and a command to look at him. He is just a lifelong film buff desperate to get out of the life he’s been living, and his motivation — to win back his wife and daughter — is not the most original, but it’s deeply felt. When Miles tries to bluff his way into something, he is not that good at it. But he is persistent, and O’Dowd sells his quiet desperation in a way that really makes you (or at least, made me) want to root for him.
Even Los Angeles looks different here than it did in the movie: decidedly un-glamorous, a little dingy, and cramped. Which is to say, like the real Los Angeles. Everyone is grasping at the same brass ring, even as all available evidence shows that it is not all that it’s cracked up to be, and there is a great wealth of characters, from the rent boy of Grace’s acquaintance to Miles’ recently-promoted boss, desperate to prove himself, to Rick’s jaded assistant to Miles’ partner, initially skeptical of Miles’ ambitions but quickly seduced by the spoils of being “the writer.”
My hopes for this show were admittedly not high but I found myself taken with it almost immediately and quickly burned through the first three episodes. Any fan of Elmore Leonard — and that includes adaptations of his work including but not limited to Jackie Brown, Justified, or Out of Sight — ought to give it a spin.