There are some directors I’d like to hate, but don’t. Steven Spielberg, for instance – the guy reaches for sentiment whenever an honest conflict of emotion proves too difficult for him to frame. He panders to the crowd, but I usually leave the theatre (or return the DVD) feeling like I got my money’s worth with him. Hey – at least he pandered to me.
Then there are directors I’d love to love, but have trouble doing so. Steven Soderbergh, for instance. The way he takes chances – let’s do a three-hour drama about the drug problem in North America; that book by Stanislaw Lem that Tarkovsky kinda-sorta filmed … any reason why that couldn’t be a smart summer blockbuster?; etc. – is the sort of behavior I naturally tip my hat to. And yet I usually finish a movie feeling as if my patience got tested once too often.
Out of Sight is a good example. Critics were generally impressed with it, and it seemed to signify Soderbergh’s newfound willingness to work with sexy actors and a tight script to deliver a straightforward thriller that should be a hit with audiences. The script was based on an Elmore Leonard novel, and Leonard’s “hip” quotient was growing among Gen X – Soderbergh’s (and my) demographic. So I took my seat and looked forward to a smart guy delivering the sort of smart film that Hollywood habitually dumbed down.
When it was over, I felt residually satisfied, but mostly let down. The story was smart enough, but by the end my interest in its characters had waned. I blamed the actors: George Clooney was still too slick to be taken seriously as a bumbling charmer, and J-Lo was J-Lo (always will be, I'm sure). The gorgeous jaw-dropper falls hard for the gorgeous jaw. Zzzzz.
But, man, did I ever love that opening scene when Clooney storms out of the office, yanks off his necktie and is caught in a mid-throw freeze-frame. That scene had an infectious energy to it, but the freeze-frame was the capper – a quick wink at the audience, to let us know there’d be just enough self-consciousness present to keep this show fun. I sure could stand to see a movie that maintained that stylistic panache right to the film’s conclusion.
The Limey is that movie. Seen laid out on paper, the movie looks like it should be a director’s bloated indulgence: Soderbergh assembles a cast of 60s actors who have since slipped out of the mainstream (Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren, Barry Newman, Joe Dallesandro), gets them to sink their teeth into every 60s cliché and hangover you could name, puts them through their paces in a revenge thriller, then skips off to the editing room where he playfully splices up its perspective in a 60s art film style.
Well, it is an indulgence, but it’s one of the leanest and most tightly controlled indulgences I can think of. Take Soderbergh's “art film” splicing: it's a little jarring at first, but it quickly becomes a reliable tone-setter for successive scenes. The first time I saw the film, I thought Soderbergh's narrative play was less intrusive and considerably more effective than Tarantino's had been in Pulp Fiction. With successive viewings each little fragment gains significance, but never in an earth-shaking “So that's what he meant!” way.
As for the acting, it's some of the best you'll see from these veterans of stage and screen. I suspect Soderbergh is an “actor's director”, a guy who gives a few scant instructions, but is mostly inclined to stay out of the way. That would explain why Julia Roberts in a Steven Soderbergh movie is such bad, bad news: she will take over a film, just as surely as Barabara Streisand would. With the exception of Peter Fonda, who was experiencing a bit of a big-screen resurgence at the time, The Limey is cast with actors whose brightest moments have come and gone. They aren't trying to keep their star in the ether; they're trying to do good work. They approach their characters with attention to detail, and project with care.
There is some incredibly satisfying violence, but this is not a graphic film. The script is peppered with snarky asides that reduce me to fits of giggles every time I watch it, but it is surprisingly serious film. The veteran actors all play off roles they became famous for, yet none of it plays self-consciously.
I want to keep gassing on like this, but the plainest truth about this film is its revelations are finally gentle ones – the sort that keep me coming back again and again, because they do not rely so singularly on astonishment and brutal surprise for their impact.
It's a fabulous film that has earned Steven Soderbergh a great deal of cache with me – enough for me to really want to enjoy myself with his next film (if only it weren't Oceans 13!).
Film Fave #4