Too many post-Woody Allen movies have been made about "sex in the head." The smart, engaging Out of Sight is an action comedy about love in the head. The real thing ignites between bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) and U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) when she stumbles into his jailbreak and gets to know him in the trunk of a getaway car. Escapus interruptus turns into a dangerous kind of delayed gratification. With these two fighting an attraction more potent than the long arm of the law, the film has an electric charm. It gives us a fine old romance with the right amount of '90s dirt under the fingernails. Jack is a gent at heart, but all he's ever done is rob banks. Karen is an independent gal who has to tough it out with her pompous male superior and a doting dad who thinks she likes the wrong guys. But she's no rogue cop, and she isn't about to let a thief like Jack get clean away.
Elmore Leonard has had a string of felicitous adaptations, 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 just 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, uh, antagonism and recognize that they're soulmates. 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. He plays Jack as a cock of the walk with ruffled feathers. He's robbed more banks than anyone in the FBI records; he's also been sloppy enough to get caught three times. Clooney gives Jack flickering shades of ruefulness and plaintiveness, wariness and confusion; he's magnetic because he's free-swinging whether or not he knows what he's doing. And Lopez has more than the perky derriere that provides visual balance to the raised shotgun in the ad shot. 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 buy Karen's involvement with Jack.
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As Jack hightails it from Miami to Detroit (where he hopes to 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 only 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 an innocent woman is being raped. Karen proves she's worthy of Jack because she isn't just a careerist or an arrest-hound, letting a numskull snitch walk away from a violent scheme. (Speaking of Bonnie and Clyde, Steve Zahn enacts this criminal sad sack like an update of Michael J. Pollard: 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 including Ving Rhames as Jack's stand-up partner, Don Cheadle as a gutless boxer turned manager/ thug, Albert Brooks as a smarmy Michael Milken-like financial wizard, and Wendell B. Harris 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 Sam 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 camera work 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, such as Jack's comical and poignant wave to Karen when she spots him in an elevator during a stakeout.
This is the kind of movie in which 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 unity, 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 neo-noir The Underneath, 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, from Elmore Leonard's novel. Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle and Steve Zahn.