Out of Sight & Get Shorty

by KE Monahan Huntley

Jersey Films presents Get Shorty and Out of Sight as slick film adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels, written for the screen by Scott Frank. The storyweaving for both, the method of revealing exposition and blending symbols to affect an audience, plays out in high style. From a Dramatica perspective, the key distinction between the two adaptations is determined in the throughlines. In Out of Sight, all four points of view necessary for a grand argument--objective story, relationship story, main, and influence character throughlines--are fully developed. Get Shorty attends to its objective and main character throughlines, however, the obstacle character and subjective story throughlines are only vaguely indicated.

Out of Sight, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is populated with cons and cynics who do not second-guess (os problem-reconsider) their decisions (story driver), even as they repeat mistakes. There is an undercurrent of doom--violence has no punchline, humor is gallows. Jack Foley, gallantly played by George Clooney, is a "famous bank robber" (mc problem-temptation) who makes a jailbreak (mc approach-doer) with no intention of returning (mc resolve-steadfast). Standing directly in Foley's path is his influence character, lipsticked, mini-skirted Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), "Like Cisco the Kid, except with an S"--a federal marshal determined (ic domain-mind) to follow the letter of the law. Intermittent, casual conversation with her father clues us in to Karen's basic drive for love (ic concern-subconscious), undermined by her rationalization (oc critical flaw) of always falling for the bad boys (ic problem-reconsider)--dreaming (ic thematic issue) of a happy ending.

Foley, along with fellow ex-cons, endeavors (os domain-physics) to steal 5 million in uncut diamonds (story goal-obtaining) from Ripley, a Mike Milken type who had done time with them in the clink. The thematic conflict of approach, how they go about the heist, vs. attitude, the manner in which they proceed, is explored in the objective characters, which include a hapless stoner, whacked out psychopaths, and Foley's spirituality seeking sidekick, Buddy.

Karen and Jack focus attention on romantic interludes (feeling), playacting roles (rs benchmark-being) to rationalize (rs thematic issue) their illogical (rs direction-logic) behavior. Wildly attracted to each other, yet aware of outside obligations (rs thematic counterpoint), Karen wonders how it all will end (rs inhibitor-closure).

The burglary is a success (story outcome), but before making a clean getaway, Foley has an attack of conscience (mc solution). He sends Buddy and the jewels off with the understanding (os signpost 4) they'll meet up later. He returns to protect the victims, Ripley and his mistress, from certain brutality at the hands of his cohorts.

Facing off at the scene of the crime, Jack and Karen can no longer ignore their different ways of thinking (rs domain-psychology). Resolute in his decision (mc thematic issue-choice) to remain at large, Jack pulls a ski mask over his face, making it easy (rs solution-help) for Karen to pull the trigger. How does a federal marshal, confronted with the perpetrator at the scene of the crime, fulfill her duty to the law and remain true to her heart (rs catalyst-commitment)? She shoots, shackles, and personally escorts him back to the slammer (rs problem-hinder). As her dad says: "My daughter, the tough babe." Riding with Foley in the back of the paddy wagon is his future cell-mate, hand picked by Karen. An escape artist, certain to teach Jack how to make an "exodus from an undesirable place" (rs solution-help).

Out of Sight is entertaining, particularly with its out-of-order snapshot style of storyweaving. At the same time, it draws us in because it delivers a smart story that is conceptually complete and logically comprehensive. It contains believable characters we fear, and those we embrace.

Get Shorty, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, amuses with its animated cartoonish characters, witty dialogue, and clever multiple plotlines. What is not offered, however, is enough information to determine a storyform. The film opens with main character Chili Palmer looking fixedly through a Miami diner window at the movie theater marquee across the street--he may work for New York mob boss Momo, but he'd rather be in Showbiz. Momo unexpectedly dies of a heart attack and Jimmy Capp, Momo's Miami counterpart, has taken over the deceased's "book." Ray "Bones" Buboni who answers to Jimmy Capp, has ordered Chili to find Leo, a deadbeat dry cleaner. The unfinished business with "The Martinizing King of Miami" is just the excuse Chili needs to leave Miami vice for Hollywood via Vegas. As a favor to the casino connection, and as an entrée into the film community, the loan shark promises to lean on a high roller who has skipped on his marker: "Hey, Chill, if you decide to go to L.A., this guy owes a 150,000 grand. Sixty days over--some movie producer . . . Harry Zimm."

Chili finds the Roger Cormanesque Zimm holed up with scream queen Karen Flores (Renee Russo), the actress from Grotesque Part 2 and the Slime Creatures series. He quickly dispenses with business, then pitches an idea for a movie to the producer and Karen--based on his own adventures:


It's basically about a guy [Leo] who owes a Shylock $15,000 and he's about three weeks over on the vig--that's the interest you have to pay. . . . He's scared. He doesn't know any better, he leaves town. So Leo gets on a plane but the plane sits there--doesn't move. They announce over the PA system some kind of mechanical problem, they'll be there maybe an hour. . . . So the guy's nervous . . . he gets off the plane and goes into the cocktail lounge and starts throwing them down one after another. As a matter of fact, he's still in the lounge when the plane crashes on take-off. . . . Right now he knows his luck has changed. If everyone thinks he's dead he won't have to pay back the 15 or what he owes on the vig. The people from the airline . . . offer [Leo's wife] a settlement.


[Interrupts Chili to embellish upon the story] . . . He gets his wife to cash the check and he takes off for Vegas with the dough. He gets there . . . and she never hears from him again. . . . He runs the 300 grand up to half a million but it's driving the guy nuts because he's winning and he can't tell anyone who he is.


: . . . He comes to L.A. I don't know what happens after that.

What happens after that is John Travolta, as Chili, glides through the objective story with graceful economy of movement unfazed by minor obstructions e.g.,

  1. Vindictive Ray Bones, livid at Chili's lack of respect;
  2. "Limo" guys who invest in Zimm's latest venture Circus Freaks, only to discover he's gambled it away in Vegas because he hoped to raise;
  3. $500,000 to buy a good script "No mutants or maniacs. This is going to be my Driving Miss Daisy" from his recently deceased partner's wife;
  4. The Divine Ms. Doris;
  5. An irate Colombian drug lord after the limo guys because they owe;
  6. $500,000 "large" stashed in a locker in LAX;
  7. A stunt man nicknamed Bear;
  8. DEA officers in ill-assorted disguises.

Chili Palmer takes power meetings with a Napoleonic actor and gets his movie made. Because as one character avers: "What's the point of living in L.A. unless you're in the movie business?"

Absent from Get Shorty is a clearly defined obstacle character, necessary to provide a different world view to that of the main character. The closest possibility is Karen, whom he romances:


What about your story?


. . . I'm still working on that one. I'm still getting the 'visual fabric' together. But I have added to it. There's a girl in it now. She looks a lot like you.

As a horror actress, Karen dreams of reciting classic Bette Davis lines: "I'd kiss you but I just washed my hair." Instead of pursuing this goal, she abandons acting altogether and with Chili decides to produce Harry's script, dissolving all tension between the two. Without an influence character, a passionate argument cannot be explored in the relationship story. The main character throughline is well defined, and as convoluted as the objective story is, it's a neat trick resolved nicely at story's end.

Like its bright L.A. setting, there are no shadows in Get Shorty. Does the film's entertainment value suffer from its lack of depth? Not at all. It sasses, it zips, it does not have to be a grand argument to be a good time.

Future Elmore Leonard projects (Killshot, Freaky Deaky, Bandits, Forty Lashes Less One, Maximum Bob) may or may not prove to be Dramatically sound. All that really matters is, like Out of Sight and Get Shorty, each affords a unique experience to its audience. As the master crime novelist remarks in a Movieline interview (July 1998 53-56, 87): "I'm not concerned how close the adaptation is. It's whether it's a good movie or not." He further comments:

Q: Is there any pressure on you to write the sequel [Be Cool] a certain way based on how Get Shorty was received?

A: No, not after 45 years. The way I look at, either it will happen or it won't. If it doesn't, I'll go ahead and write another book. The main thing I learned in the mid-'80s was: don't take it too seriously. Hitchcock said to Ernest Lehman, who was stewing over North by Northwest, "Ernie it's only a movie."

About the Author

KE Monahan Huntley is an editor and publisher based in Southern California. As one of the original contributors to Dramatica, she helped edit and analyze many of the examples. In addition, her numerous articles provided an insightful "conversational" approach to the theory. Today she can be found at Write Between the Lines or follow her on Twitter @kemhuntley.

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