Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight , from a screenplay by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, crackles and snaps on the screen as the kind of exhilarating entertainment that makes it all look easy. All you need is a good script from a good novel, with sharp, pungent dialogue, creative direction that doesn’t sweat, and a brilliantly apt cast headed by out-of-favor George Clooney and rising star Jennifer Lopez as the sexiest and most romantic couple on the screen this year. In short, Out of Sight is the best film noir since L.A. Confidential .
That said, the film may have the same problems L.A. Confidential had at the box office, with the genteel audiences staying away because of the presumed violence and the conspicuously interracial cast, however marvelously witty and funny, while the targeted male morons who make the big grosses on the first week may be turned off by a strong female character-as was the case with Pam Grier’s Jackie Brown last year-as well as the movie’s reputation for intelligence. Certainly, there was no special studio buildup for the film, possibly because of the supposedly declining star status of Mr. Clooney on the big screen. At least as far as I am concerned, Mr. Clooney is back bigger than ever, if indeed he was ever away to the extent the vulture hypemeisters figured.
From the first shot to the last, Mr. Clooney is in complete command of the screen in the assured manner of the biggest stars in the past, and he doesn’t need a ton of special effects and digital enhancement to generate excitement. The quality of rueful humor he has displayed in all his previous projects has finally found an adequate context and correlative in the raffish world of Elmore Leonard.
For starters, Mr. Clooney’s Jack Foley is a clever bank robber who never uses a gun, but much too often fouls things up not through a lack of nerve, but, rather, a lack of foresight. His story is told out of sequence with flashbacks designed not to disguise the banality of the Mexican standoff plot of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), but to provide motivations for Jack’s quixotic actions. During a chaotic prison escape in which Jack has astutely betrayed some of his fellow inmates in order to gain the necessary trust of the guards to facilitate his own flight to freedom, Jack encounters a heavily armed female Federal marshal named Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), to whom we have already been introduced as the willful daughter of a proud but protective law enforcement father, Marshal Sisco (Dennis Farina). Jack and his best friend, Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames), manage to overcome Karen and stash her in the trunk of the getaway car along with Jack.
From that moment on, the low-percentage romance between Jack and Karen shapes the melodramatic caper scenario. Karen’s weakness for irresponsible men makes her susceptible to Jack’s world-weary fatalism, but what happens between them is exquisitely and irresistibly tender, and yet never sappy or falsely contrived. For once in a mainstream production, the narrative machinery works on all cylinders without any wasted motion or fatuous rhetoric. They don’t make movies like this anymore, in this overcalculated and overtested era.
A measure of the film’s exquisite balance between satiric comedy and passionate romance can be seen in the “timeout” scene between Jack and Karen. It takes place in a hotel bar and, later, suite and is preceded by a series of hilarious pickup moves by experienced executives on the road away from home and hearth. The more elaborate the pickup line, the more devastating is Karen’s put-down response. Jack appears, mimicking the routines of his clueless predecessors, and the game begins with Karen accepting the make-believe premise of Jack’s “pickup.” This is the stuff of high comedy such as we seldom see on the screen nowadays in mainstream movies, and yet it is performed amid the implacable struggle between crime and law enforcement. Even when the game is up and the bullets are flying and the body count is rising, Jack and Karen confront each other both as gun-drawn professional antagonists, and yet also as soul mates. These are people we like and respect, not people we can snicker at derisively.
But not far below the leads are the merry band of malignant villains, played with seriocomic conviction by Don Cheadle’s Maurice (Snoopy) Miller, the king rat; Isaiah Washington’s Kenneth, the preening narcissist; and Maurice’s towering slave, Keith Loneker’s White Boy Bob. Caught between these remorseless thugs are Steve Zahn’s easily terrified flake Glenn Michaels and two rich white adulterers, Albert Brooks’ crooked broker Richard Ripley and the married woman he loves, Nancy Allen’s Midge. In other hands, these two frightened lovers would become the butt of ridicule and worse. In Out of Sight , they provoke spasms of gallantry and life-risking courage.
The Boy From Buffalo Learns the Game of Love
Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66 is, like, weird, man, which is another way of saying that I’m not sure what it is, or where its writer, director and male lead is going. From what I read and hear, Mr. Gallo makes the late Orson Welles look like a shrinking violet. Yet, though Buffalo ’66 is not this year’s Citizen Kane , it is not an easy film to dismiss. I have seen Mr. Gallo the actor now, then and again in other people’s independent projects, but I have no memory of him, and before I read his credits, I had no idea he was a professional actor. In Buffalo ’66 , he does not so much act as act out. He is raw, but not crude. There is something of the street Christ in him, not sensitive exactly, but smoldering with spiritual pain, though when we first meet him as he is walking out of prison, the only thing on his mind is where he can take a piss.
His quest for relief for his overflowing bladder is complicated by his strange aversion to being watched or touched in any way by another human being. He seems angry with himself, but he never lets even the camera close in on him so the audience can identify with him. The movie is consequently very slow getting started as Mr. Gallo’s Billy Brown meanders grimly but aimlessly in a depopulated Buffalo. When he finally finds a urinal in the men’s room of a building in which a dance class is practicing, he finds himself being spied upon by a plump, gay dancer in the adjoining urinal. Billy’s politically incorrect reaction-calling the man a fag-is truly shocking without being titillatingly graphic. The scene is also shot clumsily and the incendiary lines are delivered with what seems like amateurish improvisation.
Billy then borrows a quarter from Christina Ricci’s Layla, whom we have briefly glimpsed at the end of a dance line. Billy uses the quarter to call his mom, who, judging from Billy’s angry reaction, doesn’t seem overjoyed to hear from him. After hanging up, Billy sees Layla emerging from the dressing room, and drags her outside to her car in one of the most awkward and most unconvincing kidnappings ever put on film. For one thing, Layla is passive to the point of indifference about her plight. For another, the sequence of events has alerted us to the fact that Billy intends to pass off this strange young woman as his wife to buttress his story to his parents that he has been on a secret mission for the government during the five years he spent in prison.
Whoo boy! The vaunted independent cinema is becoming one massive suspension of disbelief after another. Can’t anybody here write a coherent screenplay, and why have reviewers been raving about Buffalo ’66 for the past few months? Gradually, however, Mr. Gallo begins pulling out one directorial rabbit after another out of the same rumpled hat. He breaks up the screen into temporal boxes, flashing back to lonely, moody pasts without abandoning the lonely, moody present in the big picture.
When Anjelica Huston’s Janet Brown and Ben Gazzara’s Jimmy Brown materialize as Billy’s couldn’t-care-less parents, Layla comes into her own as Billy’s sweetly loving wife, winning over the parents as Billy never could. Is Billy grateful for Layla’s amazing performance? Nah. He chews her out for embracing her part too enthusiastically. But by this time we realize that we are in the hands of a real but strange artist who has something to say, something he feels very deeply but cannot quite articulate in conventional terms. Freed from the unities of time and space, we hunker down to accept whatever privileged moments Mr. Gallo deigns to give us. These come thick and fast, particularly in the way the camera can’t keep its eyes off Ms. Ricci even as Mr. Gallo keeps Billy from putting his hands on Layla. Never was a powerful love story so chastely expressed, not even in the worst days of the Production Code. Ms. Ricci comes into luminous life during an interlude in a bowling alley in which she performs a slow tap routine around a pole as the director flings realistic caution to the winds.
Ultimately, we come to realize that Billy embodies the trauma of Buffalo, which, like Boston, has seen the ultimate prize in sports slip from its grasp time and time again, pro football in Buffalo, major league baseball in Boston. Billy’s mother still plays the tape of the Bills-Giants Super Bowl, hoping against hope that the Buffalo kicker will make the game-ending winning field goal instead of missing it. Billy has gone to prison for five years to pay off a gambling debt on-what else-a Buffalo game to Mickey Rourke’s bookie. Billy was innocent of the charge, but took the fall for one of the bookie’s pals. He comes out of prison intent on revenge against the field goal kicker who lost the game, but finds love instead. Not everything connects, but Buffalo ’66 somehow adds up to something more than the sum of its parts.