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Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Out of Sight
"My sound is the absence of me," Elmore Leonard once told Rolling Stone, referring to the rhetorical strip-search he conducts on every sentence that escapes from his pen, tossing aside such dangerous weapons as adjectives and adverbs. (And metaphors: The guy wouldn't use a metaphor if it were aimed straight at his head.) What's left, paradoxically, is some of the most evocative cops-and-cons writing around--absence with a hell of a presence. Consisting almost entirely of dialogue, a Leonard crime novel is like a piece of sheet music that the reader's imagination transforms into a tapestry of jazz riffs. "The hell you talking about?" someone says on the first page of Leonard's 1996 novel Out of Sight, which is now a movie starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Walt Whitman would have loved that line--the sound of America barbarically yawping.

Hollywood has had trouble adapting Leonard's novels to the big screen, though not for lack of trying. Get Shorty and Jackie Brown were the latest attempts--close, but no cigar. The former was too theatrical, the latter not theatrical enough (except for Samuel Jackson's splendiferous Ordell). Like Jane Austen, Leonard would appear to be an adapter's dream come true: All you have to do is open the book and pour all that dialogue into your screenplay. Yet, I would argue that both authors have eluded their captors, who don't seem to be able to read between the lines. That's where a writer's tone dwells--Austen's dry-as-dust irony, Leonard's spare yet unsparing look at the world and the underworld. "I see my books as little, low-budget pictures," Leonard once said. These days, Hollywood comes running even before he's through writing one. But Hollywood movies don't come cheap.

Not with Clooney, Hollywood's star du jour, in the cast, anyway. At once roughly and smoothly handsome, Clooney has climbed to the top by playing guys who coast along on their looks. (Or is it Clooney who's coasting along on his looks?) In Out of Sight, he's Jack Foley, an otherwise expert bank robber who still needs a little work on the getaway portion of the crime. When the movie opens, Jack's in the SunTrust Bank sweet-talking a teller out of her hundreds, fifties and twenties. He's so effortlessly charming that the woman practically wishes him a nice day. Then the camera slowly tracks Jack as he strolls out to his car, which...doesn't start. Time for another vacation courtesy of the U.S. government, this time at Florida's Glades Correctional Institution. But Jack, being Jack, doesn't plan to be around very long. He was already plotting his escape on the way in.

The escape, in the book, is one of those intricate Leonardian set-pieces that are tougher to pull off than an actual prison break. And director Steven Soderbergh (along with screenwriter Scott Frank, who also adapted Get Shorty) does a pretty good job with it, even if the movie, here and elsewhere, keeps sliding into Cartoon Land. Leonard's a funny writer, there's no doubt about that, but he's also a serious writer--as serious as a heart attack. Why, I wonder, do directors keep forgetting that? Like Get Shorty, Out of Sight is too funny and not serious enough, not menacing enough. Soderbergh, best known for the emotionally prophylactic sex, lies, and videotape, may not have wanted to get any blood on his hands, which is fine with me. But we need to at least feel the threat of blood on our hands. Otherwise, what's the fun of robbing banks?

Leonard has allowed Hollywood to creep into his writing lately (e.g., Get Shorty), and Clooney and Lopez's first meeting is almost a meet-cute parody. Lopez plays a federal marshal named Karen Sisco who just happens to be parked outside the prison fence when Jack comes climbing out of a hole in the ground. Though she can more than hold her own, Karen's quickly subdued and thrown in the trunk with Jack for the ride to freedom. Thus begins a relationship that's not unlike the one between Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner...if Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner had the hots for each other. Chasing after Jack, Karen doesn't quite know what to do if she catches him--cuff him or kiss him. And Lopez, with her nice-girl voice and Spice Girl body, brings a voluptuous toughness to Karen, a woman whose father presents her with a Sig Sauer .38 for her birthday.

A crook who wants to go straight, a cop who falls for a con--it sounds great on paper (i.e., in the pages of Leonard's book). And throw in a quest for $5 million in uncut diamonds. But the movie, unlike the book, never quite takes off. Like one of Jack's cars, it revs its engines for a while and then runs out of gas. Fortunately, the view through the windshield isn't that bad, particularly as the movie's large cast of supporting actors parades by. Ving Rhames plays Jack's second banana. Steve Zahn plays a surfer-type dude whose brain has been left out in the sun too long. Albert Brooks does a Michael Milken impersonation, with and without the wig. And Don Cheadle plays an ex-boxer who'd just as soon kill you as look at you. They all want their hands on those diamonds, and it might have made for one hell of a wild goose chase. Instead, it's a rather mild goose chase--out of sight, out of mind.

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