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Reframe: Out of Sight

It might be hard to remember that when Out of Sight came out almost 20 years ago to the day that the careers of both director and star were at a crossroads. George Clooney’s transition from E/R heart throb to film star was bordering on disastrous. From Dusk ‘Til Dawn was a future cult film, but One Fine Day and Peacemaker were duds, whereas the coming out party that was supposed to be Batman and Robin became a latex-nippled punchline.

Director Steven Soderbergh was in no position of strength either. Kafka — the former wunderkind’s follow up to his landmark indie Sex, Lies, and Videotape — sank like a stone. Subsequent pictures King of the Hill, The Underneath, Schizopolis, and Gray’s Anatomy all had their champions, but not one of them broke through beyond their critical plaudits.

Putting these two together with Jennifer Lopez (herself coming off the disastrous U-Turn, and the ridiculous, if successful, Anaconda) for a telling of the classic Elmore Leonard novel was anything but a sure thing. Only Lopez could be argued to be on the ascent, and even that was in doubt.

All of which makes the relative success of Out of Sight so remarkable. I say “relative” because despite being a full-on critical darling, the film made just $37 million during its box office run and only scored two Oscar nominations (one for Scott Frank’s exceptional screenplay, the other for the film’s crackerjack editing).

One might have seen the film as a noble failure. However, what it did for all three main participants far exceeded the grosses at the turnstiles.

For Lopez, it put her on the map as a serious actor. Sadly, she did little to build upon that break. Making one bad choice after another and seemingly being too focused on becoming a brand instead of a great actor. Which is a true shame, because the chops on display in Out of Sight are resplendent.

Lopez is known for her moxie, and that natural gift played well here. What was even better is how that mixed with a vulnerability that created what may be the only truly multi-dimensional character she’s ever played. Not only that, her comic timing is fierce. “You wanted to tussle? We tussled.” Delivered perfectly while receding the club she used to bust up Isaiah Washington’s threat to her person — as well as his knees — against the doorway threshold.

It’s also fair to say she never again had the kind of romantic chemistry onscreen with anyone like that which she shared with George Clooney. Much was made of the scene with the two of them trapped in the trunk of a car trading innuendo. And that’s fair. It was terrific watching them try to out insinuate each other. Even better is the “time out” sequence when the two put aside their cops and robbers roles to consecrate their affections.

The two of them. Talking over a small table. Looking for reasons to give in. Finding every excuse available while Soderbergh exquisitely forwards to them in a hotel room and then back to their back and forth, proving that even knowing where they’re going can be full of erotic tension, because seeing how they got there is worthy of a fainting chair, a fan, and a cool glass of sweet tea. All set to David Holmes’ brilliant scoring which might remind one of Portishead, only with warmth.

It’s a corker.

Clooney may have needed Out of Sight more than anyone. He appeared to be doomed to the same dustbin that captured David Caruso after he left NYPD Blue. He already had taken multiple shots at the title, only to be sent staggering back to his corner. All but out on his stool. One more failure and Clooney would have been over.

I still believe he’s the reason the movie didn’t do better. Not because he wasn’t up for the role. Not at all. More to the point, his reputation was in such tatters at the time, I simply don’t think enough moviegoers had the goodwill available to them at the time to extend.

Still, the lights-out quality of Clooney’s performance here made all of Hollywood look at him differently. He proved he could carry a movie. He and Soderbergh dispensed with one of his ticks. That odd head down/eyes up thing he always did whenever his character was being “serious”. I also believe Out of Sight established Clooney’s best onscreen persona. That of the guy who’s not quite as smart as he is handsome, and deep down knows it.

In many of his best roles that archetype has been on display. Up In The Air, Michael Clayton, and especially the Ocean’s movies. There’s this sense that Clooney is playing a guy who knows he’s faking it a little. That he’s coasted through life a bit, never quite achieving his potential.

He’s as good at that as anyone.

The challenge for Soderbergh was different. Kafka aside, none of his other post-Sex films were widely panned. It was generally understood that he was doing good work. What was in question was whether he could make the sort of film that people would actually leave their couch to go see.

Again, the irony here is that Out of Sight only did okay financially. However, just about anyone who saw it was knocked out by how outlandishly entertaining it was. Something Soderbergh accomplished without dumbing down the proceedings. Think about it. The story is told with flashbacks and flash forwards. It doesn’t go out of its way to orient you to time frame from scene to scene. There are more significant speaking parts (There’s Catherine Keener! Nancy Allen! Steve Zahn!) than you can shake J-Lo’s nightstick at. The storyline is complicated. There are tangents and whole scenes that exist mostly for themselves, and not necessarily to push the plot along. Like Vingh Rhames and Don Cheadle coming close to facing off, but never giving you what you think you want.

Eccentricities abound. Albert Brooks’ desire for fish in prison, and his wondrous toupee. Michael Keaton’s cop from Tarantino’s own terrific Elmore Leonard adaptation, Jackie Brown, shows up here playing the same character. The big white oaf in Cheadle’s crew who’s just as concerned about stealing steaks as he is getting the cash from Brooks’ vault.

Out of Sight is one hell of a crazy stew steaming in what looks like the pot of a relatively ordinary crime thriller. As Roger Ebert once said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Out of Sight perfectly captures that point.

For many a year, Elmore Leonard novels had proven difficult to adapt to screen. In large part because Leonard’s novels favor flavor over recipe. The plot is often incidental to the color of the characters and their conversations. Most would argue there have been three great adaptations of Leonard’s crime novels (although I have a soft spot for John Frankenheimer’s relentlessly nasty 52 Pick-Up) Get Shorty, the aforementioned Jackie Brown, and Out of Sight.

Of these three, I would argue that not only is Out of Sight the best, but also the most significant. What it gave us onscreen for its 123 minutes of running time was pure pleasure. It’s one of the best films of the 90s. Remove it from its decade and drop it into another, and that status would hold.

Perhaps more importantly than that, it may well have saved the careers of two of the best filmmakers of the last 20 plus years. Certainly, both Soderbergh and Clooney would have continued to work. But it’s not hard to envision an alternate Out of Sight free universe where Clooney goes limping back to television and Soderbergh continues making indie gems that largely go unseen.

Out of Sight saved them from that fate. It rescued us from it as well. It’s fair to say that we are all better for it.

Out of Sight really was.