Thursday, March 11, 2010

Retro Review: Out of Sight (1998)

Had the Best Picture category been expanded to 10 back in 1998, you can bet your candy statue replica (is there a Oscar pez dispenser out there yet? No? Don’t anyone steal my idea!) Out of Sight would have snagged one of the nominations. Hell, it could have been the dark horse to winner Shakespeare in Love’s cuteness and Saving Private Ryan’s Academy prestige. Directed by Academy fav Steven Soderbergh (who won the Best Director award two years later for his work in Traffic), this Elmore Leonard adaptation is smart and commercial; a populist, star-studded pic shot and cut with an indie eye. It isn’t an “important” film, but it oozes so much casual classy cool it could keep star George Clooney in tuxes and scotch for a year.

Watching the film a decade later, it’s stunning just how complete a picture this is. As ridiculously likeable bank robber Jack Foley, Clooney anchors the acting with a performance that cemented his leading man persona and his role as Soderbergh’s go-to man. He’s essentially the same dude here as in Up in the Air (2009), if a little lighter in years and experience. In Out of Sight he’s The Clooney 2000, tuned and ready for the Big Screen.

The rest of the cast in almost equally as awesome. Ving Rhames in his prime as Clooney’s partner in crime, a man who will spend 2 hours on the phone with his sister repenting for his 45 minutes of call-girl sin. Steve Zahn as a stoner career criminal prone to misshap. Done Cheadle as a gangster-cool former boxer with an edge. Former Grey’s doctor Isaiah Washington as a gangster totally uncool. An almost unrecognizeable Albert Brooks. Catherine Keener, Luis Guzman, Denis Farina. Hell, even Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson pop in un-credited. It’s amazing.

Even more amazing is Clooney’s co-conspirator in this veiled screwball romantic comedy. As an FBI agent tracking down Clooney’s convict, Jennifer Lopez is a knock out, delivering the best performance of her career in a movie that should have been only the beginning. She’s tough, she’s charming…she’ll tussle, brawn and heart. You have to wonder if continuing to work with Soderbergh and the like would have taken her career to better places.

You also have to wonder how much story credit should go to Leonard, and how much is earned by screenwriter Scott Frank. His second Elmore adaptation after Get Shorty (1995) – who’s Barry Sonnenfeld and Danny Devito helped get Out of Sight off the ground – Frank cemented his A-list writer status with this gem of a script, which also won him the Best Adaptation statue. Quirky and charismatic, his screenplay hits all the crime-story beats with subtle but steady accuracy. He keeps the thrills flowing, and never neglects the romance that really fuels this film’s fire.

Because above everything else, Out of Sight is a love story, a tale of two people acting on a “what if” while knowing they’d never have a happy ending. Soderbegh’s film is about choices, and how we all decide to hold or play our destiny-dealt cards. Foley and his crew played them, and we’re all better off for it.

It’s fun to think about what might be if the Oscars were a hindsight award. Would Crash (2005) win over Brokeback? Probably not. Would Silence of the Lambs (1991) beat out JFK or Bugsy? Probably yes. And if Out of Sight had been nominated in 1998, Shakespeare in Love probably wouldn’t have won…because Saving Private Ryan would.

With names like The Thin Red Line, Elizabeth and Life is Beautiful in the mix, 1998 was a tough year. But personally, I’d rather watch Out of Sight over all of them.

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