Friday, September 10, 2010
Something That Happens
Looking at the ads for THE AMERICAN leading up to its recent release it was hard not for me to think, wow, it’s like George Clooney’s totally taken himself out of the game. He doesn’t care about this summer blockbuster stuff or even winter blockbuster stuff anymore, perfectly content to make a quiet art film off in Europe and I’m not sure that I blame him in the slightest. Of course, his most recent film UP IN THE AIR stuck around for a while and took in a healthy $83 million dollars without even ever cracking the top 5. In comparison, THE AMERICAN opened in a healthy first place over the normally slow Labor Day holiday weekend, maybe helped by an adult audience who wanted to see a film actually aimed at adults and the response has apparently been pretty terrible. I kind of loved the film myself, with what I got being exactly what I wanted it to be: Clooney-as-hitman brooding in a small village somewhere in Italy with guns, beautiful girls and the ever present mood of ennui wafting through the air. Honestly, I want to go see it again right now. OK, I’m in the minority but I also know that a few people out there responded to it as I did so I’m not the only one. Occasionally Clooney has connected with what people want to see—THE PERFECT STORM was a massive hit but I always that it was pretty terrible so I’ll be more than happy if he goes on making films like THE AMERICAN for the next ten years. Others might lose their patience. But what can I say.
The very oddness of something like THE AMERICAN opening wide in over 2,800 theaters marketed as a slick action caper made me think of another Clooney film once released with a genuinely cool poster (either one would look great on my wall right now), the Steven Soderbergh-directed Elmore Leonard adaptation OUT OF SIGHT. It was the film that really set him down the path he’s on now, the one that indicated he might be more than just a TV-to-movies flash in the pan and it was also the one that began his lengthy collaboration with director Soderbergh, leading to the blockbuster OCEAN’S trilogy as well as a few titles that didn’t perform quite as well. A box office disappointment when it was released in June 1998 the reputation of OUT OF SIGHT was helped in the long run by great reviews along with a feeling that Universal had somehow fumbled this sure thing and how it seemed to reenergize Soderbergh’s then-dormant career trajectory. I’ve always liked OUT OF SIGHT quite a bit but it’s never been a film that I’ve jumped up and down over. The film doesn’t even seem to ask that anyway, instead asking you to just go along with the cool rhythm of it all as it glides through scenes feeling absolutely sure of itself. At two hours and change it may be a little too long but it really is a truly elegantly made crime film that takes the wacky FedEx aesthetic of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Leonard adaptation GET SHORTY and dials things down to a level of dealing with these characters as individuals as well as being just a fun film to relax to. It’s a great latter day example of two people who look like they should be movie stars having chemistry that really does illicit sparks and it makes the movie memorable as a result.
Soon after being sent to prison for an impulse bank robbery, veteran crook Jack Foley (George Clooney) is involved in a breakout that through various circumstances gets him locked in a car trunk he’s escaping in with Karen Cisco (Jennifer Lopez), a U.S. Marshal who just happened to be arriving at the prison during the break. As Jack’s buddy Buddy (Ving Rhames) drives the car the two of them get to know each other and afterwards when they’re separated as the aftermath of the getaway goes slightly wrong, Karen continues her pursuit of Foley with the local authorities in Miami. When that doesn’t happen, she eventually follows him and Buddy all the way to Detroit where there’s a plan underway with the very nasty Maurice Miller (Don Cheadle) to rob the house of crooked businessman Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks) who the various cohorts knew while he was doing time, bragging about the diamonds he had stashed somewhere in his mansion. As Karen continues to look for Foley, he looks for Karen as well, with the certain idea of a timeout in mind.
OUT OF SIGHT is like a groove thing, moving nice and easy through its darkly funny world of crime, featuring well-drawn characters and vivid location work that lets us practically smell each location we’re in. Working off a very sharp script by Scott Frank (pretty faithful to Leonard), Soderbergh directs his film with the utmost confidence, bringing a genuine feeling of looseness to things and it really does come across that the director wants to take this opportunity to relax a little, maybe just make a fun Hollywood popcorn movie with enjoyable characters that still very much contains his particular filmic personality. Quick freeze frames punctuate moments, the chronology hops around in flashbacks, freewheeling second unit shots introduce us to Detroit in the second half, the camera almost seem to caress Jennifer Lopez in the most loving way possible during some of those close-ups (credit to cameraman Elliot Davis as well) and George Clooney is smoothly likable all the way through as if he’s realizing for the first time that this is the kind of movie star he wants to be. There are a few things that come off as very much a part of the post-Tarantino nineties like some violence-drenched dark humor and a few movie references but even those feel germane—every time I see the film I’m a little surprised by how much I smile at Clooney misquoting Peter Finch’s famous line in NETWORK (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take any more of your shit!”) and Karen Cisco expressing reticence about the plausibility of THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR’s love story is a clever touch to sidestep any issues with the attraction portrayed here. It’s just a cool Hollywood movie and considering how Hollywood doesn’t really make this sort of thing anymore, it’s almost amazing that OUT OF SIGHT was even made at all.
There’s genuine heat between the two leads of the sort that other films rarely achieve as they catch each other in their gazes and the way they look at one another is really what the film is about in the end, captured in the forced intimacy of the car trunk scene where they meet for the first time as well as that later glance across the Miami hotel lobby (“He waved at you?”). But this chemistry is felt most of all during the famous scene which intercuts the two talking in the Detroit hotel bar where they rendezvous with them slowly undressing later on back in her hotel room (by Soderbergh’s own admission, slightly lifted from a much more explicit scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicholas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW). It’s a beautiful sequence, well written, well played, brilliantly cut (all hail Anne Coates, let’s remember) and pretty damn sexy too, a veritable short film all on its own that plays like a long, slow sip of the best kind of whiskey imaginable. It’s easily the best thing about the whole movie and when I’m not watching OUT OF SIGHT the film’s modest nature (particularly in this day and age) almost makes it easy to forget just how good it is. I think it’s because in my mind with some distance I sometimes think the film could use just a little more snap to it but then I put it on and within a few minutes I get sucked into it again, even if I’m just starting from a random point in the middle. The small pleasures that come from the moments and the characters while that ultra-cool David Holmes score plays (not to mention a few tracks by The Isley Brothers) all add up to it ultimately becoming an extremely satisfying piece of work. It’s not my favorite Soderbergh film, maybe because the vibe is just a little too laid back for me at times so maybe I prefer the ferocity and genuinely daring approach taken in THE LIMEY and, I swear, I maintain a huge fondness for the glossiness of OCEAN’S ELEVEN and its sequels. The R-rated OUT OF SIGHT with its likable crook played by Clooney plays now as a slight warm up for the more audience friendly OCEAN’S but the vibe it maintains is very much its own, almost a well-kept secret waiting there for anyone who wants to give it a try.
Not to forget that the film doesn’t just feature Clooney & Lopez acting cool together, there is of course a big heist that it all eventually builds to in the third act that pays everything off very smartly but it’s the characters that linger in the brain long after. Never in any real rush, it’s to the film’s credit how willing it is to just pause and occasionally pay attention to what they have to say, knowing that’s where much of the pleasure comes from. Soderbergh even mentions on the DVD commentary how one of the very best scenes in the film, Jack Foley’s post-coital speech on the idiocy of his profession, came within seconds of being dropped right before picture was locked and he was right to finally keep it, with the scene lending a depth to things that wouldn’t otherwise be there. I’m not sure the pacing always works—no matter how many times I see the film I always find myself zoning out for a few moments when we hit Detroit at about the halfway point and spend a few scenes with Glen and Maurice, who are maybe among my least favorite characters in the film. It’s not the fault of the actors—they each do good work here—but it’s as if the film is paying a little too much attention to plot stuff a few minutes more than needed when the characters I’d rather be hanging out with get slightly lost at this stage as the story is in transition from one point to another. But this really is a minor issue and the way things have been structured with various flashbacks revealing more of Foley and what brought the character to the opening bank robbery where we first meet him ultimately makes for a very rich, satisfying experience. It’s as if the film doesn’t build to the final shootout in the climax, it builds to what is necessary for the characters and that more than anything is what makes OUT OF SIGHT so rewarding to revisit.
This is easily one of my favorite George Clooney performances. The character was somewhat older in the book, and based on things said about Foley that would make sense, but the actor plays things as so cool and assured that I wouldn’t want anyone else in the role. Jennifer Lopez is simply fantastic, following up on the promise she displayed in a few films that didn’t quite work (Stone’s U-TURN, Raefelson’s BLOOD AND WINE) for reasons that weren’t really her fault and so good that it seems like she’s about to be in a different career than she wound up in, being a celebrity more than anything and starring in crappy romantic comedies. It really is a shame because she’s got a true movie star vibe here along with totally convincing in showing the utter confidence and brains of Karen Cisco. And the way the film shoots her, she’s ridiculously gorgeous as well. While watching the movie this time it struck me that most (if not all) of Soderbergh’s periodic freeze-frames seem to favor pausing on Lopez. Not that I’m complaining in the slightest and he must have been as taken by her as everyone else and it’s almost as if the film is gazing at her as Jack Foley does—looking for a time out, wanting to hold that image of her in the brain as long as possible before it dissipates. In just a few years she’d be off to J. Lo land never to be anything like this again but this film, like those freeze-frames, captures her when she was at her absolute best as well as the screen presence she probably should have been for years afterward.
Ving Rhames makes his guilt-ridden crook always somehow likable, Don Cheadle brings slippery danger to Maurice which makes him be genuinely threatening, Steve Zahn is appropriately annoying as Glenn, Dennis Farina makes every second he has onscreen a true pleasure as Karen’s bemused father and Albert Brooks nails the slimy corporate nastiness in his big speech to Clooney. It’s a fantastic cast all the way down the line, very well utilized by Soderbergh with even the bit players (with a few recognizable from the director’s SCHIZOPOLIS) making an impression. Catherine Keener is Foley’s magician’s assistant ex-wife, Isaiah Washington is Kenneth, Wendell B. Harris Jr is the overly officious Miami FBI guy, Luis Guzmán is Chino (making this the second straight summer 1998 with Guzmán in a minor role that I’ve written about), Paul Calderon is Detroit cop Raymond Cruz, Viola Davis makes the first of several appearances in a Soderbergh film, Nancy Allen is a welcome presence as Ripley’s maid and an uncredited Michael Keaton reprises his JACKIE BROWN role as Ray Nicolette, maybe the only time this kind of odd crossover has ever happened. It’s a shame Keaton has never played Nicolette again since in another Elmore Leonard-related project.
OUT OF SIGHT holds up pretty damn well as a smooth ride, one that moves its characters through an engaging plot yet still knowing that what it really needs to be about is George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez’s hands brushing against each other on that glass of bourbon. Working with a director who obviously knew how to use him in the frame in a way that no one else had at that point, for Clooney it was maybe the best possible way to prove that he could overcome the lame vehicles Hollywood had been sticking him in as he emerged on ER. Not all of his films in the twelve years since this film’s release have worked but there’s always the feel that he really is going for quality and he’s already shot a film with director Alexander Payne so there’s something else I can spend the next year desperately waiting for. Still, I always like returning to these films where the actor quietly proves his star power with all the mature coolness imaginable as he portrays someone on the other side of the law but in terms of the film world, to me he’s one of the good guys. All these years later I still like OUT OF SIGHT. And now I like THE AMERICAN too. Of course, your own personal mileage may vary.