Goodnight, Elmore Leonard

In honor of Dutch’s life and death, I’m reposting one of the first pieces I wrote for this blog, about one of my favorite movies, which is an adaptation of his novel.

Out-Of-Sight



1998. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Viola Davis, Dennis Farina, Albert Brooks, and Michael Keaton.

As Out of Sight begins, George Clooney rips the tie off his neck and throws it to the ground. In a flourish both funny and poetic, Steven Soderbergh freezes the frame—just for a brief moment—exactly at the height of Clooney’s fury. The frozen frame shows a red blur (the tie) held high above the actor’s crazed glare, his body contorted to such a degree that we realize that every ounce of hatred he’s ever had is going into this motion.

It’s among the first of many moments in which Soderbergh will stop the movie’s propulsion, as if he’s telling you to keep alert and stay attentive for any flicker of movement—that cinematic blink might hold the key to a character’s soul. Right there, sixty seconds into the movie, he’s attuned your eyes and your mind to flickers, blinks, and quiet details that you’ll miss if you don’t pay attention. Like Clooney’s throw, it’s a belligerent, almost arrogant, challenge, but Soderbergh’s gesture is aimed directly at the audience.

It’s telling that, for all the smooth switches in time and narrative structure, the freeze frame is employed rarely in Out of Sight, and is used less and less frequently as the movie progresses. Soderbergh’s so light on his feet here that he’s trained you, at the movie’s outset, to freeze and absorb, so the movie doesn’t have to.

Good thing, too—Out of Sight moves at a rapid clip. Its menacing, hilarious humor glances at you sideways, and comes from quick mutters and half-glimpsed facial expressions—only one actor, Steve Zahn, does much slapstick, and the broad humor he projects is the movie’s indication that the character is too moronic to act with subtlety. There are several plots being juggled—a heist, a prison break, a kidnapping, a love story, a reckoning with the onset of middle age—and the movie skips lightly through themes, and several time periods, without confusing the viewer.

Sheer hilarity is smeared with blood, and the bursts of violence are as startling as they are brief and muted. For all the speed of its action, Out of Sight swings lightly and casually, brimming over with the confidence exuded by its two leads, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Clooney’s been called the Cary Grant of his generation, because of his easy-does-it physicality, his absurdly gorgeous face, and his complete comfort in his skin. He’s comfortable being a man and he radiates manliness—but not machismo. He’s that rare breed whose natural grace and sexuality doesn’t daunt him. He doesn’t hide behind it or feel ashamed of it, as did Marlon Brando, but he also doesn’t exude a sense of entitlement about it. He’s confident, but not smug. Like Grant, Clooney is a natural comedian, whether in broad cartoonery (see Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?) or here in Out of Sight, where the chuckles come from near-undetectable changes in inflection and near-invisible gestures. Despite the fact that he’s a bank robber and Jennifer Lopez is a federal marshal trying to catch him, it’s clear why she’s nuts about him. And vice versa.

Smart as a whip, tough without being sassy, steely without being soulless, Lopez is terrific here. Her wit is more brittle and acerbic than Clooney’s, fitting a character that chomps on Nicorette gum and who’s in an anxiety-fueled relationship with a married man. She’s sexy because she moves and speaks like a woman, as opposed to a teenage girl—she dresses stylishly and sleekly, but with an adult’s sense of taste. (Note how many American romantic comedies have their heroines bumping into things, having “wardrobe malfunctions” played for laughs, and generally acting like gawky, unsure teenagers.) Lopez loves her man, but has been around long enough to know how this relationship is likely to end. Like most adults, she’s immersed in her career and its advancement as much as her love life. (How often did the women of Sex and the City ever grouse seriously about their jobs?).

Even her body feels fully formed. There’s the much-discussed Jennifer Lopez ass, but it’s her entire presence as a volupté that resonates. Her body takes up space in the world, and she’s not trying to shrink it down or hide it. She understands how beautiful she is, and why. Her flirtations with Clooney ring true because the dialogue, with its hesitations and initial awkwardness, feels like a conversation between two adults, and not the sappy post-adolescent goo of most romantic comedies.

All of the dialogue, in fact, sings. Since the movie is based on an Elmore Leonard novel, this isn’t a surprise. Soderbergh plants great running jokes that build on themselves, so that the payoff for a joke often comes twenty minutes after its inception. Narrative twists and character revelations percolate, so that you have a firm sense of a character’s nature and the space s/he takes up in the movie. Even Zahn, the clear buffoon of the movie, is introduced through a hilarious phone conversation between Clooney and his ex-wife (Catherine Keener)—we’re prepared for him long before we actually see him.

What most impresses me about the movie is its conversation between races and genders. Clooney and Ving Rhames have a natural, rhythmic friendship that never devolves into liberal piety. Black character actors—among them are greats Rhames, Viola Davis, Don Cheadle, and Isaiah Washington—don’t all speak in the same narrow vocal register or level of diction; black folks, even minor characters, are allowed room to stretch out. When Lopez and Clooney woo each other, we don’t have to see them to understand how they feel—the tone is so thorough and well-conceived that Out of Sight could almost be a radio play.

But then we’d miss Soderbergh’s wonderful use of color. The Miami of the movie’s first half is drenched in sunlit oranges and pastel yellows, and the camera saunters like the overcooked populace. As the plot gets (slightly) darker in tone, so does the color tone. Out of Sight’s Detroit, cast in sludgy brown ice and stark blue hues, feels cold and foreboding. The contrast between the two cities is striking, and the film blessedly doesn’t try to make them move in visually similar ways.

When Clooney and Lopez sip bourbon and flirt wantonly in a hotel bar, however, the two strains come together beautifully. Lopez’s honey-skinned face, candlelit and lovely, looks out a window at white snowflakes and their pale blue reflections on the glass—they blend into the city’s night lights so that I can’t tell the difference between the two. It’s a gorgeous scene, most of all because it shows that Soderbergh could have made Detroit look warm and friendly, but decided not to. He’s always conscious and careful with his cinematic choices, and wants the viewer to be just as careful watching the movie, even though it’s supposedly just a genre flick. His style is so offhandedly graceful that I don’t mind. In fact, I’m grateful.

 

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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