Novelist Elmore Leonard has enjoyed a string of felicitous screen adaptations of his books, starting with Get Shorty and continuing with Jackie Brown. Out of Sight is the canniest Leonard movie yet. It's less cartoonish than Shorty but just as funny; it's more focused than Brown, but equally affecting. The storytelling and performers emit a sassy and melodious hum.
When I read the book, its parade of movie references put me off, especially when Jack and Karen immediately discussed Faye Dunaway's greatest hits -- not only Bonnie and Clyde but also Network and Three Days of the Condor. On screen, however, I realized that the characters were signaling how well they knew that their situation was straight out of movieland: a handsome crook and a beautiful marshal transcend their immediate, ah, antagonism and recognize that they're soul mates. Karen even notes that in Condor Dunaway and Robert Redford -- "when he was young" -- fell into bed implausibly. But Lopez and Clooney are the right actors to make the conceit stick.
Before the embarrassments of Batman & Robin and The Peacemaker, Clooney was loose and confident in both From Dusk Till Dawn and One Fine Day. He's marvelous again in Out of Sight. FBI records indicate that his Jack has robbed more banks than anyone in history; he's also been sloppy enough to get caught three times. Clooney gives Jack flickering shades of ruefulness and plaintiveness, wariness and confusion; Jack is magnetic because he's free-swinging whether he knows what he's doing or he doesn't. As for Lopez, as a performer she's got sanity as well as sensuality. She's an actress who can take care of herself playing a woman who can take care of herself. That's why we can buy Karen's involvement with Jack.
As Jack hightails it from Miami to Detroit (where he hopes he'll pull a high-paying job), and Karen discreetly follows him, they yearn for a time-out from their screwed-up professional histories. (We learn that Karen unwittingly dated another bank robber -- then shot him.) The outcome isn't too easy. Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank understand that the secret of lasting movie romance lies in putting appealing personalities to the test; they show us how, under pressure, an attractive man and woman become formidable characters. We don't merely hope that Jack and Karen can get together; we hope they can do so without violating the best parts of themselves. Jack proves he's worthy of Karen not just because he's savvy and simpatico, but because he has a functioning sense of morality. For example, he won't leave the scene of a crime when a woman is being raped. Karen proves she's worthy of Jack because she isn't just a careerist or an arrest-hound, letting a numbskull snitch walk away from a violent scheme. Speaking of Bonnie and Clyde: Steve Zahn plays this criminal sad sack like an update on Michael J. Pollard's C.W. Moss in Arthur Penn's 1967 film -- we glimpse endearing innocence beneath fuzzy layers of distraction.
Soderbergh elegantly skates the line between personality and character with the rest of the supporting players, too -- a splendid group that includes Ving Rhames as Jack's standup partner, Don Cheadle as a gutless boxer turned manager-thug, Albert Brooks as a smarmy Michael Milken-like financial wizard, and Wendell B. Harris, Jr. as an officious FBI man. They're intriguing enough at first glance to make us want to take their measure as they swing into action. With Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson turning up in unbilled roles, and Dennis Farina, Catherine Keener, and the too-little-seen Nancy Allen giving their all in minor parts, this movie has star power and bench strength. And when it comes to camerawork and stagecraft, Soderbergh and his collaborators (including cinematographer Elliot Davis and production designer Gary Frutkoff) turn affectation into artistry. From the start they freeze the moving image at peak moments -- most spectacularly when Jack rips off a tie in a Nicholsonian fit of anger. Except for a lovemaking scene where it seems out of place and mechanical, it's not a cheap postmodernist device. Soderbergh uses it to define characters in action. It pays off in the narrative by fixing details of behavior in our mind that make sense only after we know the entire story. And it sensitizes us to all the telling gestures that Soderbergh doesn't slow down -- like Jack's comical and poignant wave to Karen when she spots him in an elevator during a stakeout.
This is the kind of movie where you could never confuse Miami for Detroit or mistake them for the same cities in other movies and TV shows. Soderbergh's Miami unites the color scheme of a neon jungle with a Bauhaus solidity and edge; his Detroit is an asphalt jungle under snow. In either place what distinguishes Jack and Karen is their principled adaptability. In this picture there's a core of feeling to the atmosphere. In his flop neonoir The Underneath (1995), Soderbergh smothered snappy lines and arresting arcs of character in arty coups de cinema. In Out of Sight -- a light movie, not a superficial one -- he's learned that an audience will follow any director to what lies "underneath" as long as he keeps his film expressive on the surface. The audience responds to Out of Sight the way Jack and Karen do to each other. Instantly we like the way it looks, moves, and sounds. Ultimately we like how it makes us feel.
Out of Sight.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Frank, based on Elmore Leonard's novel. Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, and Steve Zahn.