Saturday, March 05, 2005


The word for the day is: METATEXT

"Metatext" has become a film buff/geek word, for the most part, referring to a distant cousin of "subtext." Subtext, of course, being the "buried meaning" underneath the "main" story of a film (or any story, really, but four purposes a film.) For example, "main" story of the "X-Men" movies is about the clash between "good" and "evil" Mutants, but the subtext is the innevitable clash of philosophies on the question of how any oppressed minority should assert itself in a hostile society. "Subtext" is real, an intentional part of the story fixed-in by the storyteller.

Metatext, (as in "metaphysical,") is an "extra meaning" that could be said to "hover over" a film, a genre and actor, whatever; and is really only "there" in the eyes of those who've seen it. Example: Bruce Lee thought up the TV series "Kung-Fu," but was not allowed to star in it because he was Chinese. His replacement, of course, was David Carradine. Now, could there be something "metatextual" about "Kill Bill," in that Carradine plays as a white gangster who has surrounded himself with (and perhaps corrupted?) iconography of Japanese and Chinese martial-arts culture. This character is eventually killed by another character, who arrives armed with fighting skills learned from proto-Lee action-star Gordon Liu and a magic sword forged by Japanese samurai-staple Sonny Chiba and is clad at least once in a costume identical to Lee's from his unfinished final film "Game of Death?" Could the "metatext" of the "Bill" films be the spirit of Bruce Lee getting one-up on his Kung-Fu replacement after all these years?

Fun thing about metatext: Whatever you come up with, there's no way for it to be "wrong."

I bring this up only because "Be Cool" is ALL about it's metatext. Almost every "name" actor (or singer) who shows up is wearing their previous hit films and public personas on their chests like badges of honor, while those less-than-name actors on hand are mostly playing ultra-recognizable "types." We're supposed to let our memories of films-past leak into this one and redraw our reaction-map as the scenes go, the film is counting on it. In some films, this kind of casting can get tiresome, smug, and obnoxious (see: "Ocean's Twelve") but in the right kind of film (see: "Ocean's Eleven,") it can be just the right ingredient. "Be Cool," in my opinion, is thankfully the right kind of film.

It's a sequel to "Get Shorty," and if you don't recall that film in any great detail you really ought to see it again before you see this. Not because there's any kind of continuing plot to keep track of, but because "Be Cool" is hinging most of it's appeal on the audience being pre-familiar with John Travolta's character of Chili Palmer, a former underworld loan shark who in "Shorty" stumbled gracefull into the role of a movie producer.

Presupposing not only that Chili Palmer got all the development he needed in the first film, but that the audience will remember said development, "Be Cool" plows ahead with the plot while framing it's lead character the way the best "Superman" writers always known to frame theirs: We already know he's unstoppable, we already know he's going to win, the real story will be HOW he does it. (Travolta, remember, was once considered to play "Superman," there's that metatext again.) The film (and, I think, a good portion of the audience for it) considers it a given that Palmer is a consumate master-planner, that he always knows every angle, that he always makes the right move, says the right thing, calls the right help, etc., and even as the film piles on more and more bad guys it seems to sit back in it's chair and giggle "boy, are you ever gonna get it!!!!" at them like so many Brainiacs and Bizzaros.

Oh, but to the story: Fed up with Hollywood politics, Palmer decides to take a swing at the music business after he swoops in and saves Lois La..., er, I mean a young ingenue singer from her loutish manager (Vince Vaughn.) Immediately convinced that he can make her the star she dreams of being, he enlists a record-producing old pal (Uma Thurman, again with the metatext) and we're off to the races. Standing in the way of the heroes (or standing in place as Chili's unwitting pawns, or both) are a plethora of bad guys with criss-crossing agendas, including Vaughn as the repellant ex-manager, The Rock as his gay actor-wannabe bodygaurd, Harvey Keitel (metatext anyone?) as Uma's rival-producer, a Suge Knight-esque rap mogul (Cedric the Entertainer) and his armed gansta-rap group "Dub-MD" fronted by real hip-hop star Andre 3000, the Russian Mafia and the late Robert Pastorelli in his final role as a hitman.

This is all a heck of a lot of fun, if eventually a little too relaxed and "what the heck" about it's tension. The cast is comfortable and cool, and surprisingly for a film so reliant on "of course that's so-and-so-from-such-and-such" outside-film familiarity there's seldom a noticable break in character. The standout is, I think, The Rock, who once again proves himself to be the last rising star anyone should underestimate. This is his broadest comedy role to date, and to say he pulls it off is to do him a diservice: He nails it. This character could easily have been a tired, broadly-offensive cliche ("haw haw, we'll make the tuff guy gay, cuz it's funny!"), but Rock turns him into a three-dimensional figure who's "quirks" are all about subtle mannerism and the ability to convey a man who's self-awareness and self-ignorance seem permanently turned against his best interests. (And, in keeping with the metatextual goings-on, the Samoan Rock's character is said to have once thrown a man off a building, a fate which was met by another Samoan in "Pulp Fiction" in a story told by John Travolta. See? It's fun!)

Brass tacks: This is the best of the new comedies right now. It's smart, it's funny, the in-jokes all land nicely and the star-packed cast all brough their A-game. No, it's finally not quite as good as "Shorty," but it's pretty darn good. Reccomended.