[SPOILERS THROUGH EPISODE 8]
I’ve been watching the Epix series “Get Shorty” which claims to be based on Elmore Leonard’s book and the Barry Sonnenfeld film adaptation. While there’s enough overlap in the basic story about an underworld figure who wants to go legit in the film business, it capitalizes more on the title and the brand recognition than the flavor of the book or movie.
It is a compelling drama with just enough crossover with the original plot to make it seem derivative if the show didn’t cop to the title, but there is so much difference that it makes the connection to the source material distracting and prevents a great story from standing entirely on its own.
“Get Shorty” doesn’t feel like an Elmore Leonard book. It does not look like a Barry Sonnenfeld film. It is something new and fresh and worthy of its own identity as a well-crafted hardboiled crime series.
As a parody of Hollywood, it succeeds on some levels and is genuinely funny. When Miles Daly literally fumbles his way into the business, his success can only be attributed to dumb luck and weak opposition. While Miles comes from a sinister and dangerous underworld, I cannot believe that the film business is so virginal and clueless that its power players wouldn’t be prepared for the kind of threats and coercion he attempts. Nothing Miles achieves is the result of being a shrewd manipulator and much of the conflict derives from the risk of his precarious construct of lies imploding at any moment.
Here is a scene that comes close to the Sonnenfeld style and it defines the hero’s struggle even though the man pitching it had no idea he’s actually talking about himself.
From here, the idealism and the fantasy make way for a different kind of show.
The film (which I distinguish from its sequel “Be Cool”) is a stylish, energetic, and funny mob story that flips a lot of noir and thriller tropes. Travolta actually connects with this character and is entirely engaging as Chili Palmer. The rest of the cast carries the story along with a skillful balance of serious conflict and almost cartoonish violence.
The book follows this pattern and style.
Very little of this visual style, musical foundation or storytelling is evident in the Epix version. Chili Palmer is a smart, self-motivated enforcer for a Miami loan syndicate. He is largely an independent operator, applying his own moral code to situations. He doesn’t have a problem with violence, but he isn’t a killer. He has a job to do and reconciles this with the fact that people have failed to uphold their contract with his employers and are aware of the consequences. Nonetheless, he uses his skills to negotiate and collect on his accounts – he isn’t a killer.
Miles Daly is an Irish mob enforcer working for a drug lord. He and his partner execute rivals, collect debts and payments, and “clean” crime scenes. Daly is good at his job and loyal to his employer, Amara – the drug queenpin of Arizona. He despises the people he works with, not because he questions the nature of their work or is in some existential crisis about being in his job, but because they are all assholes and he’s in a dead-end position. There is no humanity glossing over the gritty and bloody reality of their work. Despite a pleasant Irish brogue and an everyman charm, Miles is a career killer and unrepentant criminal. He may well be a high-functioning sociopath.
The thing about Chili Palmer is that he sees that a lot of his skills lend themselves to success in the film industry. Sure, he uses threats and intimidation, but more often sees a way to mutually beneficial outcomes. He’s a deal-maker and someone who builds coalitions. He protects secrets and has a very practical outlook on how to succeed, long term, in a greedy, power-driven industry. We root for him to win and find a sort of redemption in a legitimate business.
A problem for this series and its protagonist is that Miles Daly commits horrible acts to achieve his goals. He remains amoral and selfish in his goals. He doesn’t realize that his one path out of crime brings the criminal world along with him and he stands aghast at how these worlds collide with complications at every turn. None of this represents an arc toward redemption because his coercion of people is temporary. Even if their shared goal of making “The Admiral’s Mistress” a blockbuster film is achieved, it doesn’t mean that the people he has harmed won’t turn on him to protect themselves in the future.
Chili Palmer uses charm and persuasion to win over enemies and build relationships. Miles literally steals a script from a delinquent client he helps murder and dispose of before blackmailing a Hollywood producer into making his movie, physically assaulting and threatening a line producer to approve its budget, and beat the hell out of an acting teacher who dared tell his precious daughter she wasn’t Hollywood material.
Miles Daly is charming, no more so when dealing with his family. His estranged wife and daughter are improbably suburban and blissfully ignorant of Miles’ “work” for Amara’s crime family. Given how battered and bloody Miles gets in the first few episodes, Miles would have had to tell his wife he’s an underground fighter to explain the occupational hazards of his line. Miles’ entire motivation is to keep his family together. This is supposed to be his struggle as he creates this new life for himself. However, rather than seeing this as his real self struggling through a lifetime of doing bad things, his relationship with his family feels like a powerful illusion he has created for himself, a mirage of happiness and stability the he needs to make him feel superior to his contemporaries among Amara’s gang.
Miles brings his equally amoral partner, Louis, along to Hollywood as an accomplice. Louis poses as the author of the screenplay that becomes the center of the action despite the fact that Louis can barely read much less write a period romance script. Louis is quickly relegated to Miles’ enforcer, tying up the threads that inevitably unravel as a result of stealing the script. Louis is an interesting character who professes a strict Mormon faith (no drinking, no premarital sex) but many of his scenes are shot looking up from the grave he is digging for one of his victims. He has a clear life-work firewall that begins to fail as Louis meets an agent at church and begins to demand more for himself out of the con. In an ideal structure, Louis would represent the life that Miles is trying to escape and perhaps the final obstacle to that freedom. Here, Miles and Louis are indistinguishable and the latter enables Miles to achieve his goals by doing the dirty work Miles no longer wants to do (but would no doubt do to achieve his ends).
All this to say that – if you tune in expecting to hear a snappy soundtrack or crisp dialogue driving a story about a well-intentioned thug with a heart of gold – you’re in for a disappointment. However, this is a great show.
This may seem like much ado about an author or a filmmaker, but that source material is essential to the both artist’s singular expression. Sonnenfeld’s approach was certainly brighter and less cynical than Leonard’s original, but there is none of the wit or “cool” that made the material fun. It is as if someone took a great loose bio-pic about John Wayne Gacey and decided to call it “Stephen King’s ‘IT’”.
This is a gritty, sometimes sad tale of flawed characters in a hardboiled noir style with an excellent cast and fantastic storytelling. By itself, this is compelling television storytelling. Even the minor characters are memorable but not because they come from Leonard’s imagination.
Like the director Rick Moreweather (a passing nod to original schlock director Harry Zimm from the book) the series lives in the shadow of its better-known progenitor and will struggle harder to establish its own voice as a result. Moreweather’s story of finding success and its cost on him as a son and a father is fascinating. The young actor Lyle who sells body as a way into the movie business is a pathetic, but still captivating story to follow as his fate seems linked to Louis and Miles. Amara’s right-hand and nephew Yago presents a wild card of impulsive irresponsibility and a desperate need for his aunt’s affection and his mood swings could upset the entire plot at any moment. Even the characters without developed stories light up scenes, making it shocking when you expect them to play important roles in the plot only to end up on the wrong side of Miles or Louis’ needs.
Amara and her cartel are depicted as complex characters who have a reason to be in the world they’ve built. Amara’s romantic core is explored to some degree and we have to wonder what kind of life she might have lived if her parents hadn’t sold her to a husband for livestock.
In all, there are elements that recall Chandler, Lansdale, and even Tarantino’s writing. Visually, there is a lack of flash or style that marks Sonnenfeld’s films. Visually, it is relatively uninspired. Compare some of the slick camera work in 1995’s film to the standard three-shot set-ups in any given episode, barring the occasional action shot and Dutch angle. There’s little in the way of visual symbolism in the camera, though the locations and sets seem to put some effort into setting the tone of a scene.
I’m pleased to know there will be a second season to this show. It needs time to find its own voice. Through the meta-drama of “The Admiral’s Mistress” I hope its success or failure help those characters – and the show – learn to stand on their own.