Screenplay : Ted Griffin (based on a by Harry Brown and Charles Lederer, from a story by George Clayton Johnson & Jack Golden Russell)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : George Clooney (Daniel Ocean), Brad Pitt (Dusty Ryan), Julia Roberts (Tess Ocean), Casey Affleck (Virgil Malloy), Scott Caan (Turk Malloy), Don Cheadle (Roscoe Means), Matt Damon (Linus Caldwell), Carl Reiner (Saul Bloom), Bernie Mac (Frank), Andy Garcia (Harry Benedict), Elliott Gould (Ruben Tischkoff)
Steven Soderbergh's retro-funk update of the original Rat Pack movie Ocean's Eleven is a vivacious, quirky, throwaway crime-comedy about the seemingly impossible heist of $160 million from three of Las Vegas' biggest casinos. It's everything the 1960 original wanted to be while avoiding the sloppiness that was inherent to a project completely subverted to the whim of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis Jr.'s egos. Soderbergh gives his film the same neo-'70s zip that drove Out of Sight (1998), and while it's not as good a movie, it's certainly an instance in which the remake outshines the original.
Updated by screenwriter Ted Griffin (Ravenous), Ocean's Eleven plays gleefully with the conventions of the heist genre, studiously avoiding any pretensions at seriousness or even plausibility. The heist performed here is so complicated and so reliant on predicting human behavior that there isn't a chance in hell it could ever work in real life. But, then again, that's what makes it so cinematically pleasing. This is the kind of movie that catches you in its pulse and takes you along with it, like it or not. It's an effervescent ride, though--fast, giddy, and over before you know it.
George Clooney steps into Frank Sinatra's role as the charismatic leader, Danny Ocean. Recently released from a four-year stint in the slammer, Ocean reteams with his buddy Dusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), who is stuck teaching young Hollywood hotshots how to play poker like pros (Topher Grace and Joshua Jackson gamely play themselves in one of the movie's funniest scenes). Once they get the financial backing of Ruben Tischkoff (Elliot Gould), a wealthy Las Vegas tycoon who owes them "for that thing in the place with the guy," Ocean and Dusty set about assembling a team of thieves, con men, computer geeks, and demolition experts to pull off the heist. These include Matt Damon as a master pick-pocket, Don Cheadle as an explosives guru with an impenetrable British accent, and Carl Reiner as a semi-retired old-pro con artist whose ulcers don't get in the way of his wanting one last score.
Formally, Ocean's Eleven is as mechanical as they come. Soderbergh cheerily leads us through quick introductions of all of the major characters as the team is assembled, and them proceeds with the intricate planning and assorted tensions among the various team members. The biggest tension of all is that Ocean's main reason for robbing the casinos is that they are all owned by malicious high-roller Harry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who happens to be involved with Ocean's ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts). It is one of the movie's more strained contrivances that the big heist is ultimately not about money, but somehow about Ocean's wanting to impress Tess so much that she drops her billionaire boyfriend and gets back with him (he's a true romantic at heart, the kind who continues wearing his shiny wedding ring even after the divorce papers arrive).
Yet, as mechanical as the narrative is, Soderbergh is always there to liberate it with jazzy riffs on '70s cinema techniques like split-screen, sped-up motion, wipe transitions, and a pulsating bass rhythm on the soundtrack. He never gets overly showy, but his retro tendencies do stand out enough to give the movie a distinct tone that plays into the comedy. It's not so much a movie about a heist as it is a movie about movies about heists, which is interesting in that there have already been two high-profile, old-school heist movies this year (Frank Oz's The Score and David Mamet's Heist), both of which played with the material straight.
Ocean's Eleven is filled with all kinds of allusions to the world of entertainment, from sleazy Vegas strip-tease acts to the tense suspense theatrics of Mission: Impossible. At one point, Soderbergh turns spurting water fountains into a slow-motion fetish object that probably would have made Alfred Hitchcock chuckle. He also slips in several sly sight gags, including one of Don Cheadle captivated by the sight of the Desert Inn being demolished on TV while we see the building coming down in the window right behind him.
All the actors are game for this approach, and Soderbergh manages to allows each one to shine in his or her own way, whether that be Carl Reiner's character putting on an elaborate ruse as a European businessman, or Elliot Gould's high-pitched, hairy-chested Las Vegas caricature, or George Clooney's ultra-confident hipster criminal, so cool that he can throw out a line like "Ted Nugent called and he wants his shirt back" and make it work. The only failing, surprisingly enough, is Julia Roberts' turn as Tess. It's not Robert fault, however; her lack of presence is the result of her playing a prize to be won, rather than a person.
After wining the Best Director Oscar for Traffic (2000), many were probably thinking that Soderbergh would bury himself deep into "serious artistry," one of the great traps of those who win the award and begin taking themselves too seriously. Luckily, when he won the Oscar, Soderbergh was already well into the production of Ocean's Eleven, which is an example of what he does best: taking well-worn genres and kicking new life into them. Soderbergh is an expermentialist, but at heart he's a movie-maker who can make even the most routine project hum. Ocean's Eleven may not be a masterpiece of genre resuscitation, but only Sinatra fans would argue that it's not a better movie than the original.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick