' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Out of Sight

Sunday, September 20, 2009

My Great Movies: Out of Sight

So we're at an Everglades prison and this bank robber, Jack Foley, has just piggy-backed onto the tunnel escape of a few other inmates but cleverly disguised himself as a guard. His buddy named, uh, Buddy is there to whisk him away to freedom. Except this federal marshal, Karen Sisco, has turned up at the prison at precisely the wrong time and threatens to prevent their perfectly planned getaway. So Jack grabs hold of Karen, puts her in the trunk of her own car, climbs in with her, Buddy takes the wheel, and off they go.

Inside the trunk Karen remains calm, Jack talks, a lot, his fingers dancing around innocently, but not too innocently, on her thigh. Eventually their discussion turns to old movies. No, really, it does. "Bonnie and Clyde". "Network." "Three Days of Condor." (All Faye Dunaway movies! Impeccable taste!) He mentions she's easy to talk to and then wonders "if we met under different circumstances...if you were in a bar and I came up and we started talking." She cuts him off, "You have got to be kidding." This passage is mighty important, and not just because it's one of the most killer Meet Cutes ever filmed.

"Out of Sight" feels like an old movie, like a Bogart and Bacall picture, with its crackling dialogue, and its two leads in possession of chemistry that could set the whole barn ablaze, and its gallery of supporting characters, all of whom are given more depth and more personality and more screen time than is normally allowable for Hollywood. That, and this sequence sets up something else, but then I don't want to skip ahead, not like the movie itself does, starting at a place that isn't really the beginning but represents the beginning.

The place it starts is a bank, where Jack executes a robbery that is smooth even by usual movie bank robbery standards. Did Cary Grant just pull that heist, you think? Except when Jack climbs into his car to flee it refuses to start, cops appear, and it's off to jail. Not quite Cary Grant, after all. It displays Clooney's elegance with the role but also the character's weariness in his life - is there any modern day actor who can so convincingly play both these traits at once?

We are then introduced to Karen, played by Jennifer Lopez, pre J. Lo, pulling off a difficult-to-render mix of fire and vulnerability, suggesting a skill level we have not seen from her since, having a birthday lunch with her father (a flat-out perfect Dennis Farina) on the bay in Miami. The film's script is by Scott Frank and was based on a book by the great crime writer Elmore Leonard and the writing in this particular scene establishes how brilliant it will be for the next two hours. A familiar situation - a father counseling his daughter on both Career and Love Life while lamenting the fact the two of them never spend time together. But watch how it's played, how truly Karen is a chip off the father's block, how in character everything they say and do is - the present she receives, the offer she makes at the end and how much he brightens up when she makes it. It establishes how the entire movie will attack common scenarios from original angles.

Later, in a chat on the phone (never mind the how and where and why), Karen asks Jack, "Is that the idea? One last score and then retire to an island somewhere?" He replies, "I'm partial to mountains myself but if you want to make it an island, we'll make it an island." Cliche acknowledged and then ever so delicately it gets flipped.

The "last score" to which she refers is hatched by Jack and Buddy's (Ving Rhames) fellow inmate - during a different prison stint - and perpetual stoner Glenn Michaels (Steve Zahn, no one could have done this role better), he of the "vacant lot for a head". A billionaire named Ripley (Albert Brooks) claims to possess a gaggle of uncut diamonds at his mansion in suburban Detroit. Trouble is Glenn also has a motormouth and blabs this same information to another inmate, Snoopy (and/or Mad Dog) Miller, a hustling ex boxer who hatches his own scheme to get at the loot, who is played by the great Don Cheadle as the ultimate schoolyard bully.

Eventually everyone leaves behind the lush colors of the tropical Sunshine State for the cold, hard gray of the Motor City (no modern director employs color schemes like Soderbergh) with Karen on the trail of Jack and Buddy who are on the trail of Snoopy and Glenn. Everyone wants something and it's not always clear who wants what or whom the most.

Well, maybe it is. The diamonds are merely the McGuffin (coinage: Alfred Hitchcock), that which everyone wants though it hardly matters what it is. The diamonds lure Jack and Karen to the same place, which is good because it's what we want. The movie to this point has teased us delightfully with the threat of romance. A hand wave here, an explicit dream there, and when they finally Meet Cute a second time after the trunk encounter the moment has to live up to the potential that has been slowly growing. It does.

Let's see, how can I properly overhype it? If I were about to expire from this earth and someone told me prior to my expiration that I would be afforded the pleasure of watching five movie scenes of my choosing and no more, rest assured, this scene would be one of the five. A Detroit hotel bar. Karen at the window. A light, cinematic snow falling. A red beacon harkening in the distance. Two idiot businessmen putting the moves on Karen the best they know how ("Andy, really, who gives a s---?"). And then The Shot. Jack moving into the frame as a reflection in the window which Karen looks out of, his lighter in hand, asking, simply, "Buy you a drink?" She replies, "I'd love one." (Seriously, the Detroit Tourism Board should just use this shot for its Visit Detroit! campaign. The city has never looked more inviting.) And we realize it's happening - the "differenct circumstances".

The dialogue that follows is magnificent, gorgeously played, the way they both lean forward, drinking each other in more than the bourbon in front of them - its foreplay, really, intercut with moments in the scene that follows of the advanced foreplay - and all topped by the speech that, for me, ranks with Harry Lime's "cuckoo clock" speech and Rick's "hill of beans" speech to Ilsa on the tarmac. If you don't mind....

"It's like seeing someone for the first time, and you look at each other for a few seconds, and there's this kind of recognition like you both know something. The next moment the person's gone and it's too late to do anything about it but you always remember it because it was there and you let go and you think....'What if? What if I'd stopped and said something? What if?' That may only happen a few times in your life."

Immediately following Jack and Karen's inevitable romp through her hotel suite the duo returns to the other reason they have come to Detroit. (I could have done without Lopez's Poignant Look Yourself In The Mirror Scene - arguably the most overdone shot in movies - but that's a trivial complaint.) These sequences back to back display a theme I have always found most appealing - holding up the random, intimate beauty of life in defiance of harsh reality. But harsh reality wins.

The film's finale takes place in and around Ripley's mansion as all the various players we have come to know, love and possibly loathe over the last couple hours converge to meet their respective fates. It is filmmaking of the highest order. As Salon's Charles Taylor's noted in his original review: "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."

I remember reading where the screenwriter William Goldman, who now makes his living more from ranting about movies than actually writing them, thundered that Jack, upon stealing the diamonds, never would have gone back into the house to save the maid with whom Ripley is having an affair which leads to he and Karen staring one another down. Goldman deemed it "Hollywood horses---."

Well, even if the scene did not also happen in the book, I would disagree. On the DVD special features Clooney describes his character as both a "romantic" and Soderbergh calls him a "feeler" and in the film Jack's ex-wife Adele (Catherine Keener) calls him "considerate". This character would go back into the house to rescue the maid, and Ripley. More than that, though, "Out of Sight" is about the inevitable showdown between Jack and Karen. In the esteemed Roger Ebert's "Casablanca" review for his own Great Movies series he writes: "There is actually no reason why Laszlo cannot get on the plane alone, leaving Ilsa in Casablanca with Rick...But that would be all wrong."

Indeed there is no reason why Jack cannot leave the mansion with Buddy, diamonds in tow, escaping Karen and prison. But that would be all wrong. Jack knows what awaits - either hell, whether it's in the form of death, prison or the empty promise of "the good life" after the last score, or heaven, in the form of Karen, however false that hope may be. One of the very first images of Jack - and an image we see several times throughout - is him with that lighter, flicking it to life over and over, holding his finger to the flame. And those final moments in the mansion show Jack putting himself as close to the flame as possible, risk versus the greatest reward.

Steven Soderbergh is among our most versatile filmmakers. He has made infamous Sundance fare ("Sex, Lies and Videotape") and superb dramatic fare with an indie vibe ("Traffic") and big budget, star driven blockbusters ("Ocean's Eleven") and he's even gone completely off the beaten path ("Bubble") but, thus far, he's only made one masterpiece. "Out of Sight".

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