Out of Sight (UNIVERSAL) opens with what may be the most laid-back bank robbery in movie history. In Florida, Jack Foley (George Clooney), heist artist not-so-extraordinaire, strolls up to a teller and informs her that his partner is poised at a nearby desk with a gun in his briefcase. After receiving the cash, Foley strolls out of the bank, right past the guy with the briefcase, who clearly has never met him before. It's a nifty, no-budget scam, but then Foley hops into his car and discovers that it won't start. Hello, jail!
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Out of Sight may be the first movie that has truly gotten an Elmore Leonard novel on screen, in all its hangdog wit and fractured-jigsaw form. Why has no one succeeded before? The explanation has something to do with the ramshackle off-centeredness of Leonard's plots (which, frankly, drive me a little crazy), but it's also because Leon-ard, with his ironic embrace of misfits, screw-ups, and losers, is, on some level, deeply in love with failure. Unlike the aggressively broad Get Shorty or the overly controlled Jackie Brown, Out of Sight grasps that a Leonard novel is really a lackadaisical comedy of underworld manners. Whether or not the heroes succeed is virtually a throwaway issue.
Foley breaks out of prison and gets stashed in a getaway-car trunk along with Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), a sexy federal marshal who discovers, to her surprise, that she kind of likes nuzzling up to this raffish criminal. He then heads for Detroit, where, teaming up with his pal Buddy (Ving Rhames) and the scary hood Snoopy Miller (Don Cheadle), he cooks up a plan to break into the home of Ripley (Albert Brooks), a former prison mate who made the mistake of bragging about his stash of uncut diamonds. That's the entire movie, but Soderbergh has a ball playing with funky freeze-frames and a pretzel-logic time structure, and he uses his superb cast to get inside Leonard's scruffy glorification of criminal haplessness.
This is Clooney's wiliest, most complex star turn yet. It helps that he's lost the Beverly Hills Caesar cut (he's actually more handsome with his hair swept back), and his performance is slyly two-tiered: Foley is all charming moxie on the surface, a bit clueless under- neath. Lopez, for all her Latina-siren voluptuousness, has always projected a contained coolness, and this is the first movie in which it fully works for her. As Sisco is lured into a romance with Foley, you can see her resolve melt in spite of itself. Don Cheadle, as Snoopy, shows a new, commanding vol-atility, and Steve Zahn, as a stoner who specializes in car theft, acts with the loopy joy of a slimmed-down Chris Farley playing Charles Manson. The climactic robbery of Ripley's mansion is a one-of-a-kind sequence: petty-crook violence staged as mock Restoration comedy. Out of Sight is so light it barely stays with you, but it's more fun around the edges than most movies are at their centers. B+