Out of Sight (1998): Soderbergh’s Best Film, Starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez

Soderbergh Tribute: 25 Films/25 Years

Soderbergh is a gifted director, who has made many good and interesting films, both big-budget Hollywood movies (the “Ocean” pictures) and smaller indies.

I have seen each and every one of his films ever since he made a splashy debut with “sex, lies & videotape” at the 1989 Sundance Film Fest.

But if I have to single one Soderbergh movie that I really admire it would be “Out of Sight” from 1998, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.

The new Blu-ray DVD includes many special featurettes, including juicy commentary from director Soderbergh and writer Scott Frank (some about their leading man, Clooney); discussion of how they shot a crucial scene at Angola prison, and so on.  But best of all is a longer, extended version of the first encounter between Clooney and Lopez in the trun of a car, which is one of the most steamy and erotic scenes in a Hollywood movie of the past two decades–perhaps ever.

Here is what I wrote back in 1998:

“Out of Sight,” Steven Soderbergh’s sly, sexy, vastly entertaining film version of Elmore Leonard’s playful crime novel, represents his most ambitious and most accomplished work to date, including his impressive debut “sex, lies and videotape” a decade ago. Containing a dozen offbeat characters, this self-reflexively witty crime caper boasts a bright, snappy dialogue that’s rarely heard in a mainstream picture.

In the lead roles, handsomer George Clooney and the terrifically alluring Jennifer Lopez create a blissful chemistry that will make viewers root for their flawed characters and eccentric romance. The film should do reasonably well at the B.O., though its complex structure, subtle humor and deliberate pacing–all contributing factors to the overall artistic impact–will prevent it from reaching the spectacular success of Get Shorty, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who’s here credited as executive producer.

Soderbergh, who became poster child for the new indie cinema ever since sex, lies and videotape premiered at Sundance and won Cannes’ Palme d’Or, stumbled through a whole decade of small, idiosyncratic films, searching for the right material to bring out his unquestionable talent. With the exception of the touching coming-of-age saga King of the Hill, which also didn’t find its audience, most of his pics were commercial disappointments. Out of Sight reveals Soderbergh at the peak of his form, endowing Leonard’s postmodern yarn with a meticulously detailed mise-en-scene that helps each member of his terrific ensemble soar.

Inevitable comparisons will be made between “Out of Sight,” “Get Shorty,” and Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” three recent screen versions of Leonard’s books, each of which worthy albeit for different reasons. Soderbergh’s film lacks the more facile commercial appeal of Get Shorty, which after all spoofed Hollywood. But in many respects, it’s more satisfying and faithful to Leonard’s spirit than Jackie Brown (based on the author’s Rum Punch), which Tarantino transported from Miami to L.A. Arguably, the most involving and charming aspect of Out of Sight is its central, bizarre but enchanting romantic affair, which Jackie Brown only tentatively suggested.

The first reel introduces the colorful gallery of characters, beginning with Jack Foley (Clooney), an ex-con about to perform yet another bank robbery. All goes smoothly until Foley reaches his car in a parking lot and a dead battery leads to his imprisonment in Florida’s Glades Correctional Institution. Incarcerated in the medium security facility, Foley observes carefully the guards and dupliciously gets to know the inmates, including Chino (Luis Guzman), his lover and some others who plan to escape.

The next, masterfully orchestrated sequence depicts a prison break that goes disastrously and hilariously awry. It just happens that Deputy Federal Marshal Karen Sisco (Lopez) is on the premises, serving a minor “Summons and Complaint,” while the action occurs. Foley’s pal, Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames), who’s waiting in the getaway car, aborts Sisco’s intent to use her gun and Foley manages to escape safely, while some of the other inmates get killed.

Standing on opposite sides of the law, the mismatched Foley and Sisco begin their courtship in the tight space of a car’s trunk, where they share their values–and love for movies. It soon becomes obvious that their paths will crisscross and fates intertwine. Intrigued by his insouciant behavior, the seemingly by-the-book Sisco is determined to bring Foley to justice. For his part, Foley, who has served half of his 40 years behind bars, is equally determined to avoid imprisonment at all costs.

Through an intricate format of flashbacks, which enrich the tale though may prove too demanding for mainstream viewers, the other protagonists are presented. Back in Lompoc prison, Foley met the none too bright Glenn Michaels (Steve Zahn), the dangerously violent Maurice “Snoopy” Miller (Don Cheadle) and Wall Street billionaire Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks), who served a term for insider trading and failed to keep his mouth shut about his wealth. Chief action, which is deliciously staged, involves the break into Ripley’s lush Detroit estate, where he hides a stash of uncut diamond. Miller, his high-strung brother-in-law Kenneth (Isaiah Washington), and his brawny but dimwitted bodyguard White Boy Rob (Keith Loneker) are searching for the hidden safe while torturing Ripley’s housekeeper (Nancy Allen) for the code. At the same time, Foley and Bragg shrewdly outmaneuver them, finding the supposedly absent Ripley as well as his precious diamonds.

It’s almost impossible to do justice to the densely rich yarn which is more character than plot-driven. Suffice is to say that there’s not a single superfluous or undeveloped character. Major subplots involve a tender relationship between Sisco and her father Marshall (Dennis Farina), a semi-retired private investigator who’s worried about his daughter’s bad choice of men, as well as Adele (Catherine Keener), Foley’s still loving ex-wife.

Scripter Scott Frank (who also adapted Get Shorty) and Soderbergh understand that Leonard’s forte lies in his sharp, nonjudgmental characterization and authentic lingo of real low-lifes who’re nonetheless immensely appealing. With unmistakable ease and subtle humor, they’ve made a film that consists of many priceless scenes. Among the highlights is a romantic interlude, in which various men come on to Sisco while she’s having a drink at an hotel until the real item–the gentlemanly Foley–arrives, or a scene in which Sisco’s father scares off Ray (an uncredited Michael Keaton), her adulterous beau. The denouement, which features an uncredited appearance by Samuel L. Jackson, is dramatically and emotionally gratifying in a way that Jackie Brown’s was not.

Not since Boogey Nights has there been a Hollywood movie comprised of so many characters, with each one of them perfectly cast. In his third bigscreen appearance, Clooney finally comes to his own as the debonair bank robber, a role that combines his good looks and easygoing, laidback charm. But the real revelation here is the versatile and gifted Lopez, who manages to be sexy, bright, and tough-talking all at the same time; her assured poise and boundless energy makes her natural as a major Hollywood action heroine.

So felicitous is the large inspired cast that it’s unfair to single out any for special praise. Still, reaching particularly high notes are Rhames as the cool yet conscientious pal whose most significant other is his religious sister; Zahn as the endlessly talkative pal; Cheadle as the shrewd conman and former boxer who plans a homicidal double-cross; Farina as the lovingly doting father; Keener as the former wife and out-of-work magician, Brooks as the obnoxious billionaire; Loneker as the dumb bodyguard more concerned with stealing steaks than jewels.

Tech credits are roundly impressive, with Elliot Davis’ stylish, but not ostentatious, camera effortlessly covering action in Florida, Louisiana, and Michigan, and vibrant production and costume design by Gary Frutkoff and Betsy Heimann, respectively. Special kudos go to veteran Anne V. Coates, whose masterful cutting accentuates pic’s droll, offbeat tempo.