King of the thrill

Charles Taylor reviews 'Out of Sight,' Steven Soderbergh's follow-up to 'Get Shorty'.

Topics: George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Movies,

Everything that’s wonderful about George Clooney in “Out of Sight” comes down to no more than a wave of his hand. Clooney plays Jack Foley, an especially prolific and wildly unlucky bank robber who, near the start of the movie, busts out of a Florida prison. Shortly after, Jack is riding in the elevator of the Miami hotel where he’s holed up when, suddenly, the door opens to reveal federal Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) sitting across the lobby. Jack and Karen met when he took her hostage during his prison break. In the trunk of her car on the drive to Miami, the two had found they could talk together easily and — after parting — that out of sight does not mean out of mind. When Jack’s brown bedroom peepers lock onto Karen’s in the hotel lobby, the two of them are too surprised, too transfixed to move. Just before the elevator door closes, Jack raises his hand and gives Karen a little wave, looking for all the world like a high school boy who’s just unexpectedly run into the girl of his dreams, the one he suspects knows how he feels, even if he hasn’t said so yet.

There’s nothing adolescent about the sex appeal of “Out of Sight.” The allure of the movie is seeing two adults who are as smitten as teenagers yet never lose the grounded quality that makes them so appealing in the first place. It’s a shaggy-dog piece of foreplay. Though we can’t wait to see Jack and Karen fall into bed, the movie ambles along agreeably. This is crime thriller as delayed gratification. Jack and Karen spend more time in their cops-and-robbers chase than they do in a lovers’ clinch. “Out of Sight” cheats itself out of any suspense about whether Jack and Karen will get together. The chemistry between Clooney and Lopez is so hot-diggity, dog-ziggity right that there’s never any doubt they will. What makes “Out of Sight” a grown-up treat is that the mixture of lust and longing is as flawlessly proportioned as the ingredients in a perfect cocktail. You can fault the pacing or wish that the movie had the sheen and style that would make it a really first-class piece of work, but it has been made by people who understand just how much the sexiness of movie stars can do for a picture. And when a movie lets you revel in that sexiness as much as “Out of Sight” does, it’s not hard to forgive its shortcomings.

Scott Frank’s screenplay is rigorously faithful to the Elmore Leonard novel it’s based on, and that’s sometimes a bit of a pickle. Leonard’s novel (perhaps the best of his recent work) is a weird hybrid of film noir and romantic comedy, and Frank is smart enough to recognize that the book is too good to mess with. (The changes he does make are improvements; he’s come up with more satisfying fates for some of the characters than Leonard did.) He’s concentrated on streamlining the action and keeping Leonard’s uncanny instinct for making the voice of each character authentic and distinct. “Out of Sight” is definitely not the gradually overwhelming letdown that happens when filmmakers botch an adaptation of a thriller that reads like a movie. What makes Leonard such fun to read, though, doesn’t necessarily translate to the movies. He’s a terrific plotter, but the real pleasure of his books is listening to his characters’ voices and drinking in the milieu. On screen, that approach can seem a little dawdling because movie thrillers have trained us to expect more immediate and visceral pleasures. “Out of Sight” hits slack spots, and that’s when you want Soderbergh to be able to jazz things up.

I haven’t seen every picture Soderbergh has directed (and I regret not having caught up with his film “King of the Hill,” about which I’ve heard many good things), but “Out of Sight” is the first time I’ve believed in him as a filmmaker. If he isn’t yet the craftsman that a slick entertainment like this needs, he’s not trotting out a bunch of stale genre clichis either. (It’s gotten so that every time I encounter another filmmaker who’s proficient at shootings and explosions and car chases and blue-filtered smoke and neon reflected in rain-slick streets, I think, “Great, another asshole.”) Soderbergh takes a sly, relaxed approach; he plays around, tries out new things. Sometimes his execution isn’t up to his confidence, though many of his choices are remarkably smart. He punctuates the movie with freeze-frames that function as understated punch lines to good jokes. He compresses a potentially grisly home-invasion sequence to about 10 seconds of close-ups (of the perpetrators, not the victims) that suggests what’s going on without showing a bit of blood, gore or mayhem. And Soderbergh pulls off something very tricky in the extended robbery sequence that brings that action to a climax. The characters are dispersed among different rooms of an enormous two-story mansion and it’s always perfectly clear where each is in relation to the others. (That’s something many good filmmakers never learn how to do.)

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“Out of Sight” is a real actors’ movie. Leonard gives each of his characters, no matter how tiny, a vivid presence. Soderbergh allows his large cast the space to make their presences felt. The cast includes Ving Rhames, as warm and comfortable here as Ward Bond, playing Jack’s partner; Don Cheadle as a murderous ex-prizefighter named Snoopy; Viola Davis as Snoop’s long-forgotten wife; Catherine Keener as Jack’s ex-wife, a former magician’s assistant who dresses herself in Pucci knockoffs; Albert Brooks as a Michael Milken-ish financier who’s doing time; that round little Latino tugboat Luis Guzman; Dennis Farina as Karen’s Dad, a retired private eye who’s button-bursting proud of his tough little girl. In the role of a stoner con who’s a walking nervous breakdown, Steve Zahn knows how to get laughs every time he wants them and, in a couple of key scenes, how to make you afraid for him. And in a small part as a housemaid, Nancy Allen, who has been absent from the screen for far too long, reminds you of what an insouciant joy her wised-up sexiness can be.

Soderbergh takes real delight in giving his stars the star treatment. He shoots Jack and Karen’s meet-cute, when they’re locked together in that car trunk, very close-in so we’re aware of Clooney’s body snuggled against Lopez’s, the rhythm of her breathing, his finger tapping nervously, then lingeringly, on her thigh. And their love scene — a real triumph of movie gorgeousness — starts with one shot that’s a knockout: Clooney appearing as a reflection in the window of a hotel cocktail lounge as the snow outside seems to fall through him and the lights of Detroit twinkle behind him. (Soderbergh is helped throughout by David Holmes’ score, the best I’ve heard so far this year, which is funky without overwhelming the scenes.) Clooney and Lopez’s performances are a testament to the sexiness of confidence. Lopez has what might be called an unflappable ripeness. She combines a noir heroine’s knack for snappy comebacks with an eroticized yielding quality. She’s a pleasure to watch because she lets herself get all shook up by love without going to pieces. (If Karen had a theme song, it would be the Marvelettes’ “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game.”)

If Lopez doesn’t hide her strength, Clooney knows better than to push his. You don’t need to be a showoff when you’re as relaxed in front of a camera as he is. It’s a good joke when Jack even manages to calm a bank teller he’s robbing (“First time being robbed?” he asks her soothingly. “You’re doing great.”) Leonard had the neat idea of making his bank robber a real gent. Jack doesn’t force himself on Karen when they’re in the trunk, and Clooney never forces himself on us, even when he’s flashing that killer smile. Clooney has a ways to go before being in the same league as Paul Newman or Sean Connery, but there’s a pleasure common to watching all three of them: the pleasure of an actor who’s completely comfortable in his masculinity while eschewing macho boorishness. Put it this way — if aliens landed and demanded to know, “What’s a movie star?” Clooney’s performance in “Out of Sight” might not be the last word, but it’d be a good place to start.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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