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Leonard's Canny Charmer

Out of Sight satisfies the eyes, mind and emotions

Too many post-Woody Allen movies have been made about "sex in the head." The smart, engaging Out of Sight is an action comedy about love in the head. The real thing ignites between bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) and U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) when she stumbles into his jailbreak and gets to know him in the trunk of a getaway car. Escapus interruptus turns into a dangerous kind of delayed gratification. With these two fighting an attraction more potent than the long arm of the law, this film has an electric charm. It gives us a fine old romance with the right amount of '90s dirt under the fingernails.

Jack is a gent at heart, but all he's ever done is rob banks. Karen is an independent gal who has to tough it out with her pompous male superior and a doting dad who thinks she likes the wrong guys. But she's no rogue cop, and she isn't about to let a thief like Jack get clean away. Elmore Leonard has had a string of felicitous adaptations, starting with Get Shorty and continuing with Jackie Brown. Out of Sight is the canniest Leonard movie yet. It's less cartoonish than Shorty, but just as funny; it's more focused than Brown, but equally affecting. The storytelling and performers emit a sassy and melodious hum.

The characters signal how well they know that their situation is straight out of movieland: A handsome crook and a beautiful marshal transcend their immediate, ah, antagonism and recognize that they're soul mates. Clooney plays Jack as a cock of the walk with ruffled feathers. He's robbed more banks than anyone in the FBI records; he's also been sloppy enough to get caught three times. Clooney gives Jack flickering shades of ruefulness and plaintiveness, wariness and confusion; he's magnetic because he's free-swinging whether he knows what he's doing or he doesn't. And Lopez has more than the perky derriere that provides visual balance to the raised shotgun in the ad shot. As a performer, she's got sanity as well as sensuality. She's an actress who can take care of herself playing a woman who can take care of herself. That's why we can buy Karen's involvement with Jack.

The outcome isn't too easy. Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank understand that the secret of lasting movie romance lies in putting appealing personalities to the test; they show us how, under pressure, an attractive man and woman become formidable characters. We don't merely hope that Jack and Karen can get together; we hope they can do so without violating the best parts of themselves.

Soderbergh elegantly skates the line between personality and character with the rest of the supporting players, too -- a splendid group including Ving Rhames as Jack's standup partner, Don Cheadle as a gutless boxer turned manager/thug, Albert Brooks as a smarmy financial wizard and Wendell B. Harris as an officious FBI man. They're intriguing enough at first glance to make us want to take their measure as they swing into action. With Michael Keaton and Sam Jackson turning up in unbilled roles, and Dennis Farina, Catherine Keener and the too-little-seen Nancy Allen giving their all in minor parts, this movie has star power and bench strength. And when it comes to camera work and stagecraft, Soderbergh and his collaborators (including cinematographer Elliot Davis and production designer Gary Frutkoff) turn affectation into artistry.

In this picture, there's a core of feeling to the atmosphere. In his flop neo-noir The Underneath, Soderbergh smothered snappy lines and arresting arcs of character in arty coups de cinema. In Out of Sight -- a light movie, not a superficial one -- he's learned that an audience will follow any director to what lies "underneath" as long as he keeps his film expressive on the surface. The audience responds to Out of Sight the way Jack and Karen do to each other. Instantly, we like the way it looks, moves and sounds. Ultimately, we like how it makes us feel.

Out of Sight.
Rated R.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. With George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle and Steve Zahn.

 
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