Six Damn Fine Degrees #38: Out of Sight and George Clooney

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

The first time I was exposed to Elmore Leonard (I make him sound a bit like a virus, don’t I?) was probably when Get Shorty came out in 1995 and was a big hit. I didn’t see it at the cinema, but I caught it on TV a while later. I have to admit that there’s pretty much nothing I remember about Get Shorty, so the first time I actually registered that this Elmore Leonard cat might be someone to look out for was when I went to see Out of Sight, in 1996, and fell for the film. I fell for the characters, the writing, the direction, the editing, the feel. And, obviously, I fell for Jack Foley (George Clooney), gentleman bank robber, for Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), and most of all for their car trunk, whirlwind romance.

It may have been the first time I took notice of Elmore Leonard, but it was definitely the first time I took notice of George Clooney as anything other than some charming, good-looking TV doctor. Certainly, Clooney was charming and good-looking in Out of Sight, and the chemistry between the film’s two leads was palpable – but there was something more to Clooney’s performance, something different. His Jack Foley is a charmer, but there’s something else that I hadn’t seen in Clooney’s acting before, and that’s goofiness. As written by Leonard, scripted by Scott Frank (who I only now realise is the same Scott Frank that wrote 2017’s Wolverine elegy Logan and the recent Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit) and directed by Steven Soderbergh, Foley isn’t always Mr Cool, Mr Perfect, Mr George Frigging Clooney, and the actor does a wonderful job of making his character both human and funny in ways that Clooney’s movie star parts up to that point hadn’t permitted.

Obviously there’s something of the Hollywood fantasy to Out of Sight and its central romance between a US Marshall and a serial bank robber, and Clooney and Lopez both had those superstar looks, but there was a special alchemy in the various creative sensitivities that came together in that film, and as a result Foley doesn’t feel like a Hollywood artifice. This is a guy that may often find just the right words, or that doesn’t even need words because he’s got that George Clooney smile – but he stumbles, he gets nervous, he begins to stutter when he realises that it is about to happen between him and this stunning woman who’s sitting in front of him. He almost fucks it up, because the cool George Clooney exterior is just that, and on the inside Foley is scared he’ll get it wrong, he’s not up to it. After all, he may have robbed lots of banks, but he also got himself caught and put in prison repeatedly… and perhaps robbing a bank is more difficult than this utterly illogical romance with a US Marshall.

Certainly, Jack Foley still is a suave, cool George Clooney character who’s good at what he does – if perhaps not as much so as a certain Danny Ocean in a later Clooney/Soderbergh collaboration. But Foley paved the way for later performances where Clooney could be goofy and clown around. Without Out of Sight, I suspect there might not have been the various collaborations between Clooney and the Coen brothers – from O Brother, Where Art Thou? via Burn After Reading to Hail, Caesar! There might also not have been all those Nespresso ads, though at this point I’m not sure whether that’d be good or bad.

I can’t really say how much of Out of Sight is down to Leonard, who, if Justified is anything to go by, likes giving his protagonists a healthy helping of goofiness in addition to their cool, or whether it’s mostly Soderbergh resisting the Hollywood clichés and having some fun with his leading man. A lot of it was definitely Clooney’s willingness to go for the role and to lean into the facets of the character that weren’t perfect. In later parts, he developed other previously unseen sides of his persona, adding a streak of melancholy in films such as Solaris (yet again with Steven Soderbergh) and Syriana, but while I’ve liked many of those films, it’s when Clooney plays the leading man but is allowed to subvert his image that I enjoy him most. And while he’s been great in later such parts, it’s Out of Sight that I keep returning to.

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