Out of Sight

outofsight2Out of Sight won’t cause as much fuss as Pulp Fiction did, but in its own relaxed and playful way it’s just as entertaining. You can see it at the end of a rough day and come out refreshed; it’s like driving a new air-conditioned car on a muggy day — it’s a smooth, cool ride in the midst of summer-movie haze. The movie is about crime and attitude, language and losers who think they can scam their way into the winners’ circle. In short, it’s an Elmore Leonard story, and this is by far the best Leonard adaptation so far, maybe because it doesn’t try so hard.

The movie begins by introducing Jack Foley (George Clooney), who looks like a presentable businessman except for the tie he’s just torn off himself and flung onto the street. He strolls into a bank and carries out a nonviolent heist with suave confidence — and that’s the movie’s tone, too. Jack isn’t the hero, though — he’s a typical Leonard sap, who harbors the illusion of a lazy life of crime. The true hero is Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), a federal marshal who dates a married FBI guy (an amusing surprise cameo here by an actor reprising his role from another Leonard movie) and seems to want more from life than doing her job competently. When Jack escapes from prison and winds up in a car trunk with Karen, it’s the Elmore Leonard version of meet-cute; they bond by riffing on movies. (Quentin Tarantino, who adapted Leonard in Jackie Brown, owes more to him than to anyone else.)

Until now, George Clooney’s most memorable roles outside E/R have been Seth Gecko and Sparky the gay dog; here, he proves what his performance in From Dusk Till Dawn hinted at — that, given a meaty character and sharp dialogue, he can project the effortless grace of a true movie star. His Jack Foley, who robs banks because he “isn’t a 9-to-5 guy,” is a habitual criminal but not a hardened one. He can take care of himself, but he’s not a violent man — he doesn’t even fire a gun until near the end of the film. That Jack escapes being a thief-with-a-heart-of-gold is due equally to Leonard and to Clooney, who enjoys playing Jack’s growing, ticklish attraction to Karen. He understands the giddy absurdity of it: A bank robber falling for a U.S. marshal makes so little sense that it makes perfect sense.

Jennifer Lopez is working on the same level, and she, too, transcends being the huntress-who-falls-for-her-prey. What struck me about Lopez here is that she hardly moves a muscle; Karen doesn’t believe in wasted energy. (Of course, Lopez plays more than a few scenes in a tight leather coat, which prohibits movement.) Like Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, Lopez sits and takes the measure of the foolish men surrounding her; she lets them make a move, and then she strikes. She’s never better than when she’s rebuffing a succession of drunk ad executives at a Detroit hotel bar; when Jack finally sits down across from her, it’s as if to show the other men what it takes to win her — brains, for starters.

Out of Sight was directed by Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape), whose work here surprised me as much as Curtis Hanson’s work in L.A. Confidential. Like Hanson, Soderbergh hadn’t attempted a crime drama before, but the genre turns out to be a natural and comfortable fit. Working with a faithful script by Scott Frank (who also adapted Leonard’s Get Shorty), Soderbergh loosens up and gets a jazzy rhythm going, with the help of cinematographer Elliot Davis (whose camerawork is laid-back and hand-held) and composer David Holmes, whose ’70s-flavored score is so cool I stopped on the way home to buy the album. (And a fine one it is — loaded with great dialogue from the movie and primo music-to-chill-out-to, it’s on its third spin on my player as we speak. It poses strong competition to the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas CD.)

Soderbergh seems thrilled to be working with such a rich supporting cast, too, and performers like Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn (who’s hilarious) and Albert Brooks do some of the best work they’ve done in movies. Out of Sight makes it all look so easy: adapt a terrific novelist faithfully, get a solid director, hire a strong ensemble cast, and have fun with it. If only more works of entertainment were made, like this one, by people who know what they’re doing! But apparently it isn’t that easy, and so a movie like Out of Sight stands among routine Hollywood summer fare the way Karen Sisco stands among the deluded saps on both sides of her profession — an oasis of intelligence in a desert of dummies.

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