Out of Sight

06/03/2024

It may seem an absurd claim but bear with us. George Clooney has no charisma. Yes, the actor has twice been voted The Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine. He has also been the on-screen love interest or starred opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Lopez, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Julia Roberts, Nicola Kidman and Cate Blanchett. Perhaps, too, more than any contemporary actor, Clooney calls to mind the great stars of classic Hollywood — like Cary Grant and Clark Gable. But he is not charismatic. Clooney is instead charming. Very charming; maybe enormously so, but at the same time not charismatic if we define charisma as a state and charm as an action. One can be charming but one is charismatic. We can turn charm into a verb but not charisma. We have to charm but not to charisma. 

   Thus far we may have offered a useless prejudice and a pedantic linguistic assertion, but it could help us explain an aspect of stardom and the appeal of a film like Out of Sight. Clooney plays a career criminal, a bank robber and a recidivist who just isn’t that good at what he does. But this might rest on an odd ethos rather than unequivocal incompetence. He has never in his life used a gun to commit a crime, though he has robbed hundreds of banks. So might you, if you had if not the killer charm then the robber charm of Clooney’s Jack Foley. At the beginning of the film, he walks into a bank and says to the teller she needs to hand over the cash. If she doesn’t his colleague with the briefcase, who is sitting at a nearby table with an assistant manager, will put a bullet between the assistant’s eyes if she causes any trouble at all. He also comments on her very pretty smile. She agrees to his request, gives him the cash and on his way out he says to the briefcase owner, “she’s cute isn’t she.” The assistant manager asks who this man happens to be, and the briefcase holder says he has no idea. 

     This is a movie bank robbery if ever we have seen one, and its purpose isn’t to show Foley’s competence but Clooney’s magnetism: when he gets into his car it won’t start; a few seconds later the police show up and off he goes to prison once again.  Plenty of bank robber films have played up the bumbling appeal of the lead or leads, and the sixties and seventies had quite a few films that didn’t quite have the gravitas of the heist but instead the levity of the caper. Heist films include Rififi, The Red Circle and Heat; examples of the caper would be How to Steal a Million, The Hot Rock and The Italian Job. The line is sometimes thin, but usually the caper relies on humour and the heist on diligence. It may also be the difference between charm and charisma, with Robert De Niro all but charmless playing Neil McCauley in Michael Mann’s film. But he does have a quiet charisma that suggests the two words are almost a compound or indicate a tautology. Who says noisy charisma? Charm is often more exuberant and that is the last thing McCauley happens to be in Heat

    With some actors, the gap between their onscreen performances and their offscreen presence is pronounced. But with others, one seems to extend into the other. Whether appearing in One Fine Day or on Graham Norton, starring in Out of Sight or a Nespresso advert, Clooney is a performer happy in the public eye, a figure capable of laughing at himself aware the audience will be laughing with him. In the adverts, he assumes everybody knows who he is or is describing him in the most flattering terms, when they only want him to get out of the way so they can access the coffee machine, or are describing as dark, rich and unique the coffee and not him. Clooney insists the joke is at his expense while he will walk off with around $ 40 million. It is perhaps the best heist he has ever committed and plays it like a caper movie. Hadley Freeman reckoned: “Rich, handsome, successful, smart: I don’t know if Clooney is the perfect man, but he is certainly the perfect interviewee. He is excellent at selling himself, which isn’t to say he is inauthentic – on the contrary. But a man can be genuine and hyperaware of what people want from him.” (Guardian

     Perhaps charisma can keep its own company while charm is a dish made for two, or more. This is where chemistry comes in and if Out of Sight was so successful on its release it wasn’t only Clooney’s appeal; it was also Jennifer Lopez’s allure. Clooney put it well: “Every actress in town read for that part, and part of it was that she had to be sexy, but you also had to believe that she could shoot you and kill you. And Jennifer had all of that. You know, you believe every minute when she picked up a gun, she might pull the trigger and blow your head off, and she was really good.” (GQ) Lopez’s performance as US Marshal Karen Sisco coincided with a series of much tougher roles for women where they could take care of themselves and take out others without a man as protection. Terminator 2GI Jane, and Alien 3 showed women no longer as damsels distressed by the man’s absence but aware of their physical prowess. Karen resists the clumsy and cliched advances of a couple of men in a hotel bar. She shows another man who thinks Karen might just like a bit of rough stuff that she can tussle with the best of them as she floors him with a couple of blows from her retractable baton.  

    But Foley is a different proposition and the film’s appeal lies partly in its caperesque elements that director Steven Soderberg would emphasise in the Ocean films. However, no less important here are other sub-genres that aren’t used to guns and bank robberies, and are closely affiliated: the impossible romance and the weepie. Maybe all impossible romances are weepies but not all weepies are impossible romances. Weepies can have little romance (Stella Dallas or Imitation of Life) but the more impossible the love, the more lachrymose the outcome: Brief EncounterCasablancaThe Age of InnocenceBrokeback Mountain. In Out of Sight’s most mellifluous scene, Foley turns up at Karen’s hotel in Detroit, and they sit in the bar as the snow falls outside. They pretend to be Gary and Celeste. Celeste says she is a sales rep who gets a hard time from the customers for being a girl; he then asks how long can they play these roles and then insists it isn’t a game. It is, instead, a hiatus, with the pair of them aware a fling between a cop and a con can’t last - but it can be a tantalising and pleasurable short-term experience. 

   The advantage the modern impossible romance has over its classic equivalent is the couple can at least have a sexual encounter without the moral demands of the past, and Soderbergh draws on Nic Roeg’s famous lovemaking scene in Don’t Look Now. Playing with the chronology, the film moves back and forth between the conversation in the bar, and the silent touches in the hotel room. It is less explicit than Roeg’s sequence but captures the mood for love perfectly, as if feeling cannot be expressed in the real world but might be caught between two temporalities. The scene feels like a dream and the film has already given Karen one earlier when she wakes up in her father’s presence, recovering in hospital from an injury. She had been thinking of Foley. If romance is impossible then maybe the film needs to find a technique that will allude to that impossibility, discovering in flash-forward a tense that can be hypothetical but cannot be categorical. If we can say with confidence what happened yesterday (for all the vagaries of memory), we cannot say with the same certitude what will happen tomorrow. But the flash-forward here gives to their affair both the impossible and the inevitable: they cannot not end up in bed together. And so they do, and so Soderbergh plays with time just as Jack and Karen are playing for time, aware that this is a brief encounter outside their lives as law-enforcer and law-breaker. They can briefly be Gary and Celeste, and hence the hiatus. 

    The flash-forward isn’t the only example of temporal jiggery-pokery and the film will seem a nineties work in its freeze-framing, achronological insistence in pulling the film out of its timeline. Tarantino showed how it could be done in Pulp Fiction. While Tarantino’s tricks were not new even in Hollywood (Point Blank is a brilliant sixties example) they had become fashionable, and there seemed a flurry of films putting the flash into flashback — and flashforward. (The Canadian director Atom Egoyan became especially expert and innovative in films like The AdjusterExotica, and The Sweet Hereafter) While usually temporal shifts in classic commercial films were motivated by character, in numerous nineties works they were dictated by the filmmaker, giving the material an assertive presence beyond but not necessarily detrimental to the story's telling. In Out of Sight, the bank robbery at the beginning isn’t the initial event in the timeline, and later we see why Foley does it: he has turned down a security job from a white-collar criminal friend from inside, who is now back running his multi-million dollar business. Yet though the timeframe may just seem clever, it is motivated perhaps by allowing Karen into the story much sooner than would otherwise have been so. As Tim Phelan says, “by bringing Karen in early, it gives agency to her story and pursuit, making her character as important, if not more so, than Jack’s.” (Cinephilia and Beyond

   Phelan may have a point if we accept that character isn’t the same thing as stardom: that Clooney is the film’s star but that Karen is the film’s deeper character, the one for whom the romance is impossible and yet meaningful. When they exchange words in the bar, Jack is talking about those what-if moments, when you pass somebody on the street and you know there is a connection but you let it go and are left with a feeling of missed opportunities. These may only happen a few times in your life, Foley says. “Or once,” Karen replies. It is as though she is wondering if this man is all charm. Might there be more to him than that? Foley isn’t likely to be thinking the same thing though he may be wondering if their night of love might be interrupted by a Swat team. Has he charmed her enough to avoid this likelihood? We might see the film as a star vehicle for Clooney but as a character part for Lopez. While Foley’s relationship with his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) is offered as banter, Lopez’s with her father (Dennis Farina) is played for a gentle pathos, with a hint of the Ozu-esque, of a father who wants his daughter to find love but where the daughter might be a little aware of the father’s subsequent loneliness. When she takes off from Miami to Detroit, her father sees her off at the airport: his face hopeful but a little forlorn.  

   Speaking of Lopez's audition, Soderbergh said, “Jennifer is no shrinking violet, and she came in and nailed it. You could feel it in the room… George was better with Jennifer than with anybody else. He was different, and that’s what I needed.” (Cinephilia and Beyond) Clooney needed perhaps to do more than turn on the charm, and the film at its best shows two people for whom presence matters more than pretence, where a charm offensive can seem more offence than charm. Yet if it works it rests on our awareness that Clooney is a charmer, one who might eventually settle down and prove there is more to him than that. Even weightier films like Up in The Air and The American rely on such magnetism, as if whether killing people’s jobs or assassinating lives, Clooney can turn up or down the appeal, rather like turning up or down a thermostat. Clooney is a great star but maybe not so interesting an actor; a room-temperature celebrity rather than a fascinating presence in American film.  

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Out of Sight

It may seem an absurd claim but bear with us. George Clooney has no charisma. Yes, the actor has twice been voted The Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine. He has also been the on-screen love interest or starred opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, Jennifer Lopez, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Julia Roberts, Nicola Kidman and Cate Blanchett. Perhaps, too, more than any contemporary actor, Clooney calls to mind the great stars of classic Hollywood like Cary Grant and Clark Gable. But he is not charismatic. Clooney is instead charming. Very charming; maybe enormously so, but at the same time not charismatic if we define charisma as a state and charm as an action. One can be charming but one is charismatic. We can turn charm into a verb but not charisma. We have to charm but not to charisma.

Thus far we may have offered a useless prejudice and a pedantic linguistic assertion, but it could help us explain an aspect of stardom and the appeal of a film like Out of Sight. Clooney plays a career criminal, a bank robber and a recidivist who just isn't that good at what he does. But this might rest on an odd ethos rather than unequivocal incompetence. He has never in his life used a gun to commit a crime, though he has robbed hundreds of banks. So might you, if you had if not the killer charm then the robber charm of Clooney's Jack Foley. At the beginning of the film, he walks into a bank and says to the teller she needs to hand over the cash. If she doesn't his colleague with the briefcase, who is sitting at a nearby table with an assistant manager, will put a bullet between the assistant's eyes if she causes any trouble at all. He also comments on her very pretty smile. She agrees to his request, gives him the cash and on his way out he says to the briefcase owner, "she's cute isn't she." The assistant manager asks who this man happens to be, and the briefcase holder says he has no idea.

This is a movie bank robbery if ever we have seen one, and its purpose isn't to show Foley's competence but Clooney's magnetism: when he gets into his car it won't start; a few seconds later the police show up and off he goes to prison once again. Plenty of bank robber films have played up the bumbling appeal of the lead or leads, and the sixties and seventies had quite a few films that didn't quite have the gravitas of the heist but instead the levity of the caper. Heist films include Rififi, The Red Circle and Heat; examples of the caper would be How to Steal a Million, The Hot Rock and The Italian Job. The line is sometimes thin, but usually the caper relies on humour and the heist on diligence. It may also be the difference between charm and charisma, with Robert De Niro all but charmless playing Neil McCauley in Michael Mann's film. But he does have a quiet charisma that suggests the two words are almost a compound or indicate a tautology. Who says noisy charisma? Charm is often more exuberant and that is the last thing McCauley happens to be in Heat.

With some actors, the gap between their onscreen performances and their offscreen presence is pronounced. But with others, one seems to extend into the other. Whether appearing in One Fine Day or on Graham Norton, starring in Out of Sight or a Nespresso advert, Clooney is a performer happy in the public eye, a figure capable of laughing at himself aware the audience will be laughing with him. In the adverts, he assumes everybody knows who he is or is describing him in the most flattering terms, when they only want him to get out of the way so they can access the coffee machine, or are describing as dark, rich and unique the coffee and not him. Clooney insists the joke is at his expense while he will walk off with around $ 40 million. It is perhaps the best heist he has ever committed and plays it like a caper movie. Hadley Freeman reckoned: "Rich, handsome, successful, smart: I don't know if Clooney is the perfect man, but he is certainly the perfect interviewee. He is excellent at selling himself, which isn't to say he is inauthentic - on the contrary. But a man can be genuine and hyperaware of what people want from him." (Guardian)

Perhaps charisma can keep its own company while charm is a dish made for two, or more. This is where chemistry comes in and if Out of Sight was so successful on its release it wasn't only Clooney's appeal; it was also Jennifer Lopez's allure. Clooney put it well: "Every actress in town read for that part, and part of it was that she had to be sexy, but you also had to believe that she could shoot you and kill you. And Jennifer had all of that. You know, you believe every minute when she picked up a gun, she might pull the trigger and blow your head off, and she was really good." (GQ) Lopez's performance as US Marshal Karen Sisco coincided with a series of much tougher roles for women where they could take care of themselves and take out others without a man as protection. Terminator 2, GI Jane, and Alien 3 showed women no longer as damsels distressed by the man's absence but aware of their physical prowess. Karen resists the clumsy and cliched advances of a couple of men in a hotel bar. She shows another man who thinks Karen might just like a bit of rough stuff that she can tussle with the best of them as she floors him with a couple of blows from her retractable baton.

But Foley is a different proposition and the film's appeal lies partly in its caperesque elements that director Steven Soderberg would emphasise in the Ocean films. However, no less important here are other sub-genres that aren't used to guns and bank robberies, and are closely affiliated: the impossible romance and the weepie. Maybe all impossible romances are weepies but not all weepies are impossible romances. Weepies can have little romance (Stella Dallas or Imitation of Life) but the more impossible the love, the more lachrymose the outcome: Brief Encounter, Casablanca, The Age of Innocence, Brokeback Mountain. In Out of Sight's most mellifluous scene, Foley turns up at Karen's hotel in Detroit, and they sit in the bar as the snow falls outside. They pretend to be Gary and Celeste. Celeste says she is a sales rep who gets a hard time from the customers for being a girl; he then asks how long can they play these roles and then insists it isn't a game. It is, instead, a hiatus, with the pair of them aware a fling between a cop and a con can't last - but it can be a tantalising and pleasurable short-term experience.

The advantage the modern impossible romance has over its classic equivalent is the couple can at least have a sexual encounter without the moral demands of the past, and Soderbergh draws on Nic Roeg's famous lovemaking scene in Don't Look Now. Playing with the chronology, the film moves back and forth between the conversation in the bar, and the silent touches in the hotel room. It is less explicit than Roeg's sequence but captures the mood for love perfectly, as if feeling cannot be expressed in the real world but might be caught between two temporalities. The scene feels like a dream and the film has already given Karen one earlier when she wakes up in her father's presence, recovering in hospital from an injury. She had been thinking of Foley. If romance is impossible then maybe the film needs to find a technique that will allude to that impossibility, discovering in flash-forward a tense that can be hypothetical but cannot be categorical. If we can say with confidence what happened yesterday (for all the vagaries of memory), we cannot say with the same certitude what will happen tomorrow. But the flash-forward here gives to their affair both the impossible and the inevitable: they cannot not end up in bed together. And so they do, and so Soderbergh plays with time just as Jack and Karen are playing for time, aware that this is a brief encounter outside their lives as law-enforcer and law-breaker. They can briefly be Gary and Celeste, and hence the hiatus.

The flash-forward isn't the only example of temporal jiggery-pokery and the film will seem a nineties work in its freeze-framing, achronological insistence in pulling the film out of its timeline. Tarantino showed how it could be done in Pulp Fiction. While Tarantino's tricks were not new even in Hollywood (Point Blank is a brilliant sixties example) they had become fashionable, and there seemed a flurry of films putting the flash into flashback and flashforward. (The Canadian director Atom Egoyan became especially expert and innovative in films like The Adjuster, Exotica, and The Sweet Hereafter) While usually temporal shifts in classic commercial films were motivated by character, in numerous nineties works they were dictated by the filmmaker, giving the material an assertive presence beyond but not necessarily detrimental to the story's telling. In Out of Sight, the bank robbery at the beginning isn't the initial event in the timeline, and later we see why Foley does it: he has turned down a security job from a white-collar criminal friend from inside, who is now back running his multi-million dollar business. Yet though the timeframe may just seem clever, it is motivated perhaps by allowing Karen into the story much sooner than would otherwise have been so. As Tim Phelan says, "by bringing Karen in early, it gives agency to her story and pursuit, making her character as important, if not more so, than Jack's." (Cinephilia and Beyond)

Phelan may have a point if we accept that character isn't the same thing as stardom: that Clooney is the film's star but that Karen is the film's deeper character, the one for whom the romance is impossible and yet meaningful. When they exchange words in the bar, Jack is talking about those what-if moments, when you pass somebody on the street and you know there is a connection but you let it go and are left with a feeling of missed opportunities. These may only happen a few times in your life, Foley says. "Or once," Karen replies. It is as though she is wondering if this man is all charm. Might there be more to him than that? Foley isn't likely to be thinking the same thing though he may be wondering if their night of love might be interrupted by a Swat team. Has he charmed her enough to avoid this likelihood? We might see the film as a star vehicle for Clooney but as a character part for Lopez. While Foley's relationship with his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) is offered as banter, Lopez's with her father (Dennis Farina) is played for a gentle pathos, with a hint of the Ozu-esque, of a father who wants his daughter to find love but where the daughter might be a little aware of the father's subsequent loneliness. When she takes off from Miami to Detroit, her father sees her off at the airport: his face hopeful but a little forlorn.

Speaking of Lopez's audition, Soderbergh said, "Jennifer is no shrinking violet, and she came in and nailed it. You could feel it in the room... George was better with Jennifer than with anybody else. He was different, and that's what I needed." (Cinephilia and Beyond) Clooney needed perhaps to do more than turn on the charm, and the film at its best shows two people for whom presence matters more than pretence, where a charm offensive can seem more offence than charm. Yet if it works it rests on our awareness that Clooney is a charmer, one who might eventually settle down and prove there is more to him than that. Even weightier films like Up in The Air and The American rely on such magnetism, as if whether killing people's jobs or assassinating lives, Clooney can turn up or down the appeal, rather like turning up or down a thermostat. Clooney is a great star but maybe not so interesting an actor; a room-temperature celebrity rather than a fascinating presence in American film.


© Tony McKibbin