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Out of Sight: The fine differences between a plot and a story

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Written by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.

Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Steve Zahn.

There's a fine difference between a plot and a story. A plot consists of the events that you see when you watch the movie. A story consists of the events that you remember after the movie is over. Usually (especially in genre movies for example, L.A. Confidential) the plot and the story are the same. However, in something like Pulp Fiction (with its broken time line, seemingly irrelevant sequences, and wildly discursive nature) the two are as far from each other as they can be.

After doing Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino directed an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch called Jackie Brown. That film, along with a previous Leonard adaptation, Get Shorty, ostensibly belonged to the crime caper genre - but the focus was somewhat loose, because the colorful characters didn't seem to have much interest in following the strict plot, and rather enjoyed showing off their respective quirks. Which, of course, provided most, if not all, enjoyment - for the life of me, I won't be able to recall the plot of Get Shorty, but I certainly remember the goofy grin on John Travolta's face.

Out of Sight is another Elmore Leonard adaptation, directed by Steven Soderbergh of the sex, lies, and videotape fame. And, as usual, the plot and the story are very much different - here, they are also at war with each other.

The plot concerns a veteran bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney), who is caught, jailed, and spends his time planning an escape and a robbery, which would bring him a cool five million in uncut diamonds. However, there are his old friends from the last time he was behind the bars, most importantly a merciless killer Maurice Snoopy' Miller (Don Cheadle), and they also happen to know about the diamonds.

The said plot, while occasionally engaging, is of the strictly cut-and-paste, connect-the-dots variety. It doesn't generate much excitement, and the pacing feels somewhat slow - perhaps, because Leonard, along with Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank (who also adapted Get Shorty) are much more interested in other things.

At first, they parade a fascinating array of characters across the screen, including Foley's partner, Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames), a gruff but charming criminal, who doesn't do anything without confessing to his sister. There's Glenn (Steve Zahn), a perpetually stoned dude, who wears sunglasses even when it's pitch dark around him. There's Mr. Ripley, a semi-honorable Wall Street financier, who is warmly attached to his toupee collection. And there's goofy personas and captivating characters aplenty.

Second, there's a love story, and it's absolutely excellent. During one of his adventures, Jack takes hostage a federal marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). This scene (an amusing twist on the "meet cute" tradition) sparks affection in both of them, and the resulting love story is by far the most appealing and interesting aspect of the movie, despite the fact that Karen and Jack will really meet only twice afterwards. Each encounter between them sizzles with the kind of tension and chemistry that is truly exciting to behold.

It also helps a lot that both Lopez and Clooney are at the top of their game. Lopez plays tough, no-nonsense U.S. Marshall with assured grace, and Clooney, abandoning his usual "head down, eyes up" acting stance, simply oozes charisma. I have to admit that every actor in Out of Sight is very good, but these two achieve something special.

And, therefore, it's somewhat annoying when that pesky plot gets in the way of such a great story. The sequences devoted to the caper are quite impressively mounted, but they are really no match to the love story, and, as a result, feel like digressions of what's really important. The story wins over the plot -but then again, that's what usually happens.