Editor’s Note: In this feature, running every other week, Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald shares her love of certain movies and what makes them great — in the hope of inspiring some of your at-home entertainment choices.
OK, let’s talk about chemistry. Not the kind that takes place in a lab — I know not of such things — but the kind you find on a movie screen, where two people discover magic in each other’s eyes. You can find splendid examples of this throughout movie history: I always like to point people to William Powell and Myrna Loy in the “Thin Man” series of the 1930s and ’40s. But here’s a great one, from the not too distant past: George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, in Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 crime drama “Out of Sight.”
Back then, let’s note, Clooney and Lopez were at very different places in their careers. Clooney, still mostly thought of as a television actor, was coming off the mega-flop that was “Batman and Robin”; Lopez, still in her 20s, was a rising star just beginning to get leading roles (most recently the title role in 1997’s “Selena”). And Soderbergh, quite literally, threw the two of them into a car trunk together. Clooney’s character, Jack Foley, is a career bank robber who’s just escaped from a Florida prison; Lopez plays Karen Sisco, a U.S. marshal who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, and finds herself with Jack in the back of the getaway car.
So … what do a handsome crook and a beautiful lawwoman talk about, lying intertwined in a tiny space as he murmurs into her ear in the faint reddish light? In Scott Frank’s sly screenplay (based on an Elmore Leonard novel), they talk about movies. She wonders aloud if he thinks of himself as Clyde Barrow, which leads to a discussion of Faye Dunaway movies, which leads to “Three Days of the Condor” and Karen observing that it didn’t quite work for her “the way [Dunaway and Robert Redford] got together so quick, romantically.” The line’s a wink to the audience; we’re quite ready for Jack and Karen to get together quick, even if they’re not.
And off the movie goes, teasing us on a will-they-or-won’t-they spree. “Out of Sight” is good when Jack and Karen are apart; it’s a clever, intricate crime caper, a darker precursor of Soderbergh’s jaunty “Ocean’s 11” a couple of years later (which also featured Clooney as a suave thief). But when they’re together, it’s truly great. That scene in the trunk, with their low voices crooning in the dark, is one of cinema’s sexiest, even though nothing other than conversation happens. Later, when they briefly and unexpectedly lock eyes across a lobby, the air suddenly becomes electric with possibility. Her eyes get wider, he raises a hand in an instinctive greeting, and the world holds still just for a second — and then the elevator door closes. (Throughout the latter scene, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” plays in the background on tinny piano, which is weirdly perfect.)
And there’s an irresistible sequence later in the film, in a hotel bar high above Detroit, where Jack and Karen meet again. We see his arrival as she does, reflected in a night-dark window as snow falls on the city below, clicking his lighter (it’s a habit; Clooney makes it smooth) and grinning at her as if she’d invented the bourbon she’s sipping. They flirt, in sentences almost overlapping. “I’m Gary,” he says. “I’m Celeste,” she replies, and you wonder how the camera didn’t melt. It’s a great movie-star moment: These two people of surpassing gorgeousness — throughout the movie, his perfect stubble and her flawless lipstick are not the stuff of mortals — are into each other, and we’re into watching them. Watching it now, having seen years of Clooney’s amused, suave looseness and Lopez’s tough-yet-sweet persona in movies good, bad and indifferent, these scenes in “Out of Sight” still feel utterly fresh. You believe Jack and Karen’s heart rates quicken when they look at each other; you believe that each of them thinks the other would be both their life’s biggest mistake, and their greatest pleasure.
Aside from Clooney and Lopez, “Out of Sight” is sprinkled with smart dialogue and actor pleasures: Viola Davis, in only her second big-screen role, as a criminal’s weary girlfriend; an unrecognizably smooth-haired Albert Brooks as a dubious businessman; Catherine Keener as Jack’s ex, a magician’s assistant (I love this detail); Ving Rhames as Jack’s partner in crime; Dennis Farina as Karen’s seen-it-all dad; Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson in funny quick-hit, uncredited cameos.
But ultimately, this movie’s a wallow in movie-star chemistry, made all the more appealing by the casualness with which its practitioners seduce us. “This fella holds you hostage and you talk about movies?” a skeptical agent asks Karen, after the trunk sequence. Says she, thoughtfully, “It was an interesting experience.” Indeed.