Network: Epix, Sunday, Aug. 13, 10 p.m.
Who hasn’t dreamed of making a movie that wows the world and wins Oscars? Iconic mystery writer Elmore Leonard poked fun at that desire with his 1990 best-seller Get Shorty, about a film-loving gangster dispatched to Hollywood to collect a debt — only to wind up an auteur. The 1995 movie intensifies Shorty’s show-biz-skewering cynicism: Wily wiseguy John Travolta yearns to make a flick about his own life with help from schlock-meister sleazeball Gene Hackman.
But now comes this fast and loose series adaptation. Leonard’s twisty caper has been tamed, the characters merged and renamed, the murder and mayhem reframed. Shorty the TV show wows by making its two main scrapers richly lovable.
Aimless Miles Daly (Bridesmaids’ Chris O’Dowd), Irish-born lackey to inscrutable Nevada mob queen Amara (Lidia Porto, a real find), is determined to go clean to win back his wife and their 12-year-old daughter. Meanwhile, low-budget horror movie producer Rick Moreweather (Ray Romano) needs his own soul makeover. Living in the shadow of his auteur dad, he carries the weight of a man who wonders why he let his own aspirations, and a former love, slip away.
Watching the two lost strangers pair up to try to make a $30 million period romance — one that moves them and unlikely financier Amara to tears — is more than delicious fun. It’s a delightfully unorthodox journey of redemption.
Miles’ nutty attempt to sneak onto a studio lot, Amara’s crazy casting notions (“I like John Stamos”), an amusing case of blackmail, a brewing turf war miles away in the desert — the plot owes a lot to screwball classics such as 1941's Ball of Fire, in which a gangster’s moll finds love with a professor. Despite all those tangents, the storytelling never gets tangled, as on some more overwrought season-long tales.
The entire cast keeps it simple, too, with nary a showy actor in the bunch. O’Dowd has just the right mix of edge and rubber-faced lunacy to convince as a guy who muses about changing his life while he’s prepping to unload a dead body. Romano, who has quietly segued from sitcom stardom to dramatic turns (TV’s Men of a Certain Age, the indie hit The Big Sick), seems to know his wheeler-dealer Rick well. Raffishly appealing, he scores his best performance to date.
And, fitting for a show about Tinseltown, Shorty’s look is truly, timelessly cinematic. The vistas of shabby Hollywood Boulevard are so vivid with saturated reds and blues, they might as well be in Technicolor. Rick’s run-down studio lot offices are so atmospheric that Damon Runyon’s ghost could be hovering.
As La La Land showed in both its premise and Oscar night drama, Hollywood is an unending roller coaster of dreams dashed, realized and put in turnaround. Shorty cracks the same chestnut — albeit with loan sharks and hit men — to its own lingering effect. At a time when the world seems upside down, it’s heartening to see some bad (or just slippery) guys try to do good.
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