Fresh off of her overdue wedding to Ben Affleck (in a subdued, perfectly rom-com worthy Vegas ceremony, no less) on July 16, and just days away from her 53rd birthday on July 24—a nearly incomprehensible fact for ordinary human beings who actually look their age—Jennifer Lopez seems to be living her best life these days.
Her Netflix documentary Halftime—a catch-all chronicle of her performance at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2020, her awards-season campaign for the film Hustlers, and the path that she followed to earn those extraordinary opportunities—premiered last month to strong reviews, and suggested that Lopez is pursuing more projects than ever that she truly loves, both personally and professionally. July also marks the 4K release of Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight, featuring one of her best performances, a welcome reminder that Lopez has always been a better actor than people—and possibly even Lopez herself—give her credit for.
Nominated eight times for Golden Raspberry Awards (not counting a “Razzie Redeemer Award”), but just twice for Golden Globes, and never for an Oscar, it’s easy to confuse some of the movies in which she has appeared with what she brings to them. But since her days as a backup dancer in the music video for Janet Jackson’s “That’s The Way Love Goes,” Lopez has stolen scenes, films, and hearts with her toughness and versatility. Those qualities are sometimes overshadowed by her ambition and her visibility; and yet based on statements by Lopez, it’s almost understandable why one might not fully see—or would at least undervalue—what she has achieved in her career.
In Halftime Lopez reveals something surprising, and crucial, about her work, or at least how she sees it. Describing her role in Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, where she played Ramona, the hard-working mastermind behind a network of strippers, Lopez observed, “This was the first role where there was no hiding any part of myself.” As a fan, the question you can’t help asking in response is, how can that be true?
It’s an interesting statement from a person whose dedication and hard work are clearly evident in everything they do, although obviously making an effort and showing vulnerability are not the same thing. But as someone who counts Out Of Sight among his all-time favorite films—its romantic chemistry works because of the dogged persistence and steely vulnerability Lopez delivers opposite George Clooney—her quote seems almost to devalue how good she has been on so many occasions. And that just happens to be my favorite of her films; The Cell, Shall We Dance?, U Turn and, of course, Selena, among many others all have passionate fan followings, because of her terrific work in each of them.
Kino Lorber’s 4K release offers a timely excuse—ahem, opportunity—to revisit Out Of Sight. It was Soderbergh’s mainstream breakthrough, and the first film where George Clooney, as career bank robber Jack Foley, stopped wiggling during performances like a bobblehead on a car’s dashboard (a fact that Clooney himself acknowledges in the commentary track). But it’s Lopez’s performance as U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco that provides the emotional glue between the project’s commercial trendiness (as an Elmore Leonard adaptation following Get Shorty and Jackie Brown, and as a post-Pulp Fiction bump for stories about colorful, talkative scofflaws) and its lasting heat as a sophisticated and decidedly grown-up love story.
The performances are consistently great, which makes it an easy movie to love. But from the first scene with Karen, where her doting father Marshall (Dennis Farina) cheerfully gifts her a handgun for her birthday, it’s clear that Lopez can hold her own against an ensemble of titans—some leads, some veteran character actors. Scott Frank’s script vividly showcases her strength and intelligence, as when she reacts instinctively to the jail break that puts her and Jack into the trunk of the car where their mutual attraction first sparks, as well as in her tireless capacity to outwit Steve Zahn’s Glenn Michaels. Lopez makes Karen’s choices feel appropriately reflexive, even effortless, for a celebrated career law enforcement officer who will not be diminished or sidelined by anyone. But she also conveys the more important and more difficult quality of being helpless in the face of something, or rather someone, that Karen should know better than to get involved with.
That Soderbergh makes Clooney look like especially tantalizing forbidden fruit—in a dream sequence she walks in on him soaking in a tub rather than the other way around, as you might traditionally expect—certainly provides a lot of fuel for Lopez to light Karen’s fire. But this is a driven, dedicated career woman who shot one of the men she previously dated. Lopez captures the complexity of the character’s resistance to making a similar mistake again, and her history of ending up in the romantic crosshairs of a man she knows may not be good for her.
Her capacity to pivot between these extremes, often within the same scene, makes Karen and Jack’s developing relationship feel extremely powerful, especially during the centerpiece sequence leading up to when they consummate their attraction. After fearlessly—and again, effortlessly—shooting down a trio of trade-fair dipshits who try to buy her a drink, Karen adopts with Jack exactly the kind of coltish naivete that those would-be suitors hoped to prey upon, briefly fulfilling a desperate hope that their affair wasn’t complicated by the reality of their circumstances. Lopez does it again after a sex scene that manages to be extremely sexy in its freeze-framed modesty. It feels at once too chaste for the tension that she and Clooney have generated until that point, but also possesses an anachronistic edge, appropriate for the film’s references to Three Days Of The Condor and other ’70s standard-bearers.
By the time Karen is forced to decide whether or not to shoot Jack during the robbery of Ripley’s home, you feel the desperation in her voice that she doesn’t want to make that choice, especially after compromising what the characters thought was her integrity by falling for him in the first place. Lopez is absolutely mesmerizing, and she makes you forget that the story seemed to belong to Clooney’s character at the beginning—especially because it’s her that you see last in the film, outsmarting Jack, the cops that are bringing him back to prison, and perhaps even herself.
That’s just one role in a career of 30-plus years. But one could dig into a number of her other performances for similar highlights, whether or not they generated the same attention or acclaim. (Angel Eyes, for example, may not be a great film, but she’s great in it as a much different kind of police officer than in Out Of Sight.) And so the question that remains is whether Lopez truly did not give herself to those other roles in the way that she did for Hustlers, to truly not hide any part of herself, or if she simply is so good that those qualities come out of her performances more than she realizes.
Jennifer Lopez certainly deserves more recognition than she sometimes receives, but when someone works as hard as she does for so long, sometimes it’s easier to see the hard work than the result of it—even for the person who’s expending it. Yet, with Halftime and the skillfully self-aware rom-com Marry Me earlier this year, she continues to display examples of her diverse talent. In the meantime, the awards-season recognition that she received for Hustlers specifically underscores how remarkable she was in Scafaria’s project, but one hopes that the powers that be—and that she herself—will in the future more readily recognize that being remarkable is not exceptional in the context of a career as accomplished as hers.