For critics, favorite movies always present a sort of quandary: more often than not, they are dependent upon the purity of an emotional connection, and frequently resist attempts to objectify their artistic merits in the same way we would the latest blockbuster or arthouse offering. Mind you, there are plenty of critics who count 'The Godfather' or 'Bridge on the River Kwai' among their most beloved films and their bona fides are indisputable, but Gene Siskel's all-time favorite was 'Saturday Night Fever,' and while it's one of my favorites as well, it may or may not hold up in the same way as either of the aforementioned classics. All of which brings me to 'Out of Sight.'
When 'Out of Sight' was released in 1998, I was on the same Elmore Leonard train as everybody else, but I wasn't a George Clooney fan and hadn't been knocked out by many of Steven Soderbergh's post-'Sex, Lies and Videotape' films. But after just one viewing, I was inextricably obsessed with the film, and took at least three other people to see it while it was in theaters, and subsequently subjected everyone else I knew to it on DVD. But until Universal Studios Home Entertainment released it exclusively on Blu-ray at Best Buy, I probably hadn't seen it for eight or nine years. So you can imagine that when time came to take a look at it for this week's "Shelf Life," I was pretty nervous about whether it would still retain the same charms as before.
The Facts: Released on June 26, 1998, 'Out of Sight' was a modest hit for director Steven Soderbergh, earning $77 million against its reported $48 million budget. The film was well-received critically, earning two Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing, and won Best Film from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics, the latter of whom also awarded it Best Director and Best Screenplay awards. Currently the film retains a 93 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: If George Clooney wasn't a full-fledged movie star before this film, it seems like in retrospect there was no way he wouldn't be after it: seldom have audiences seen an actor take such capable and comfortable command of the screen as Clooney does, while still managing to be relatable, vulnerable, and even a little bit stupid. As Jack Foley, he has an instant likeability that gives believable emotional dimensions to the burgeoning relationship between his character and Jennifer Lopez's Karen Sisco. Although there are certainly elements of Clooney's performance that he has returned to in subsequent roles, this was the first time we'd seen him in a sort of full Cary Grant mode, chiseled and ridiculous at the same time, communicating authority and just a hint of silliness that keeps him from staying rigid on the screen.
Meanwhile, Lopez has never been, and perhaps will never be, better than she is here as Sisco, who for all intents and purposes should be the iconic female character which all actress aspire to play: strong, capable, intelligent, understated, but irresistibly feminine and unbelievably sexy. She has a real vulnerability in the sense that she's not impenetrably tough, and in spite of herself is charmed by Jack's doofy conversational skills in that first, all-important trunk scene. At the same time, she isn't so swayed that she fails to try and do her job, and retains a sense of identity and integrity as an authority figure by quickly turning the tables on Glen (Steve Zahn). Later in the film, there's an extremely natural curiosity and eventually interest that she develops in Jack, and the consummation of their relationship has all of the right notes, both gratifyingly sensual and bittersweet, that again gives their story some genuine emotional heft.
In terms of the storytelling as a whole, Soderbergh proved (perhaps to himself as much as Hollywood) that he could capably handle a movie that provided conventional appeal and yet retained his own distinctive filmmaking personality. This is less visible in the expressive editing of collaborator Anne V. Coates than in the way he manages to trim all inessential material from the narrative and yet maximize what he needs to communicate in order to not just help the audience understand, but become emotionally engrossed. It's not just a matter of star wattage that makes us "love" the pairing of Clooney and Lopez' characters, it's that we get to watch them fall for one another, and understand it in an almost purely intuitive way. (It's telling that the deleted scenes on the DVD and Blu-ray are all decidedly more emphatic/ expository and were consequently excised from the film.)
Technically it's also a gorgeous movie, not only making its two leads look about as good as any two humans are ever going to, but creating a very specific and effective color palette that is saturated and beautiful and yet not so exaggerated or stylized that it takes us out of the movie. From the glowing warmth of Miami to the cool blue chills of Detroit, the film maintains a visual personality, but doesn't betray the story by trying to do too much with the camerawork. Everything in it feels important, indispensible, and impactful, and it all coheres together so effectively that you're entertained and engaged and ultimately genuinely affected by the experience of watching it.
What Doesn't Work: I kind of don't think anything doesn't work in 'Out of Sight,' but if there's anything that doesn't quite maintain the same punch it did when the film was first released, it's the freeze-frame editing. In many scenes it works brilliantly, and finds really great moments to somehow sharpen focus on a character's personality (perhaps none better than Clooney's Jack ruefully throwing down his tie after a failed job interview). But looking at it years later, some of those frozen transitions feel slightly precious and self-congratulatory in a film whose general self-awareness balances itself out with a genuine sincerity. At the same time, I feel like my reintroduction to that style was perhaps more jarring than I expected – not because it was disorienting, but because it's the sort of deliberate stylistic flourish that few filmmakers employ now.
What's The Verdict: 'Out of Sight' is not just a good movie, it's a great one – really, the 'Thomas Crown Affair' of this generation, told expressively through the lens of a natural-born filmmaker and two stars whose chemistry and mutual talent (at least at that moment) was equal to the task of making us care that they cared about one another. As I said above, the film doesn't have an ounce of fat on it, and takes full advantage of every character and plot line that it includes, but best of all, it creates a compelling tapestry of both comedy and drama not just by being expertly directed and acted, but by creating three-dimensional characters who are funny and sad and sweet and terrible but never pure archetypes or caricatures. In short, 'Out of Sight' is one of the most genuinely and effectively romantic films in the past two decades, and it should be the standard to which other films aspire, and the model from which they draw inspiration.