|Photo by Bob Marshak|
Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven is pure fizz — a shimmering champagne bubble of a movie. Nominally based on the 1960 Rat Pack heist flick, the one with Frank Sinatra in tangerine angora and Dean Martin deep in his cups, the film is a remake but shares little with the original outside of a title, its vaguely clubby feel, and Las Vegas, now radically transformed, as backdrop. The first version was shot at the dawn of Camelot (presidential contender JFK dropped by during production), and directed with palpable resignation by Hollywood soldier Lewis Milestone, who’s more kindly remembered for his 1930 war epic All Quiet on the Western Front. With Frank and Dean as hoods planning to knock off five casinos with some former army buddies, the whole thing came off as a Hollywood bagatelle, an excuse for Sammy, Joey, Peter and the rest of the bottle brotherhood to lay siege to Vegas for a month: They shot in the daytime, then took over the Sands at night. The movie was one of the year’s most popular, but it’s aged as badly as the pack’s off-color jokes and boozy high jinks. It’s trash and a bore, memorable only as a wheezing last gasp from a moribund movie industry and, more valuably, as a time capsule of Sinatra Inc. in all its pickled, preening ignominy.
So why remake Ocean’s Eleven? If you’re Soderbergh, I suppose the answer is . . . why not? After last year’s one-two political punch of Erin Brockovich and Traffic, making a movie about nothing must have had its appeal. For a director like Soderbergh, for whom every film seems a personal dare, the prospect of playing with a train set like Vegas, with some of the industry’s biggest stars, must have seemed irresistible. He not only had the Bellagio, the MGM and the Mirage at his disposal, he also had high rollers like George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, along with golden oldies Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould. And where once the only-broad-that-mattered was Angie Dickinson, here she’s Soderbergh’s golden girl, Julia Roberts, as the woman every man wants. Roberts plays Tess, who was once married to Clooney’s Danny Ocean but now hangs art for Andy Garcia’s casino owner, Benedict. Danny wants Tess back, along with the receipts for three of Benedict’s casinos, which is where the foxy dream team, with their bottomless bags of tricks, comes in. It’s all unbelievable and ridiculous, but it’s the sort of unbelievable and ridiculous with which classic Hollywood seduced us — the glamour, the riches, the mellow beauties who do the impossible as effortlessly as the rest of us draw breath. And if the film is also finally not about anything save its own radiant surfaces, well, then, again . . . why not?
Ocean’s Eleven’s strengths are Soderbergh’s — its look is as sleek as one of Siegfried and Roy’s pampered jungle cats, its vibe just as cagey. Working under his alias, Peter Andrews, the director again serves as his own cinematographer, and rarely has a movie felt so much as if it were unwinding straight from inside a filmmaker’s head. As in Traffic (which he also shot), much of the photography seems hand-held, but here the lighting is softer, diffused, and the camera seems to be lavishing extra attention on the world around the characters. Soderbergh isn’t rushing through the production design to get on with it, as is his usual practice. He knows that in the absence of a real story, Philip Messina’s sets are as much the point of the film as Vegas and his glittering cast. One of the more fascinating things about this director is how uninhibited he is about his own learning curve — you can actually see Soderbergh teaching himself something different with each new film, and you never get the sense that he’s embarrassed about you watching him learn. He’s a natural when it comes to directing actors, but much of the rest of the Soderbergh style emerged through practice. He taught himself how to tell a story with economical precision, and in the process became a master of elliptical editing. Here, however, his pace is somewhat stepped down (though never slow), almost as if he were extending himself, and us, the opportunity to linger.
It’s an irresistible invitation. Vegas has never looked more bewitching, or more unreal — there are no threadbare carpets or fat ladies parked at the slots. Even poor, shabby Atlantic City, where Danny makes his first move, gets to shine. The film opens with Danny’s release from a New Jersey prison, and from there it’s a quick hop to the blackjack tables. In Atlantic City, he hooks up with one conspirator, Frank Catton (a sublimely funny Bernie Mac), just before reuniting with his main partner in crime, Rusty Ryan (Pitt). Before he does, though, Danny calls his parole officer. It’s a quick, throwaway scene that’s meant both to tell us something about the con man — namely that he’s a breezy, unrepentant liar — and to fix him in our sympathies. There are other things, too: the Trump casino sign gleaming through the Jersey night fog and the little lit-up puffs of steam that trail after Danny’s lies. And then there’s the way that Clooney smiles into the phone — rarely has a man doing next to nothing looked quite as lovely. The payoff of this otherwise unremarkable scene is precisely all this useless beauty, and the way in which, when seen through the right lens, the ordinary world can transform into something extraordinary. Which is, after all, not just the moral of Las Vegas, where a quarter can become a quarter million with a single pull, but of Hollywood, as well.
There’s no doubt that Soderbergh can and will do better, reach higher, push harder, but here he wanted to figure out this “wind-up toy,” as he once put it, and it would be churlish to begrudge him his fun, and ours. Ocean’s Eleven is the most purely entertaining movie to come out of Hollywood so far this year, and if that doesn’t seem worthy of Soderbergh’s talents, it’s worthy enough for a night’s amusement. The plot may be flimsy, but screenwriter Ted Griffin’s dialogue has the snap of classic screwball comedy, with the occasional hiccup of Soderbergh’s own puckish humor. How Danny and Rusty secure the blueprints for the casinos’ safe is of an absurdist piece with how Rusty communicates with the team’s acrobat, Yen (Shaobo Qin), with how he liberates the explosives expert, Basher (Don Cheadle), and, finally, with how the heist goes down. If the actual robbery doesn’t sizzle the way it should (there’s none of the nail-biting thrill of, say, Jules Dassin’s Rififi), the quick-sketch scenes of how the team joins forces, along with their elaborate preparations, show Soderbergh at his most playful. Pay attention, and in between the volleys of freeze-frames, swish pans and jump cuts, you’ll catch a bit from Casablanca, another from Touch of Evil, along with a few nods toward Howard Hawks.
That sense of play, of not simply finding the perfect moment but sharing it with the rest of us, is most evident in Clooney and Pitt’s badinage, in the way the two share the same frame with such easy confidence. There are some actors who bring out the best in other performers, and Clooney, whether he’s riding the waves with Mark Wahlberg in The Perfect Storm or riding shotgun with Pitt, is one of them. His body slightly thickened, eyes dark and smoldering as Theda Bara’s, Clooney holds the screen with the self-assurance of a star who knows he’s not about to lose it, even when the guy next to him looks like Brad Pitt. For his part, the younger actor, dressed ghetto fabulous and unburdened by romantic counterpoint, again proves that he’s best, and most at ease, when he’s digging into a character role or playing close second fiddle to another strong actor. The two stars make such a beautiful couple that by the time Roberts enters, clomping her way into the boys’ club, you want her to walk right back out. Hers is the most thankless role in the film — she is, after all, just the girl — but what’s undeniable, too, is how she alone seems bereft of the generosity and bonhomie that give the rest of the cast its 14-karat luster. To watch Clooney and Pitt jab and spar, trading perfectly timed call-and-response insults, is to realize that before Roberts’ stilettos even hit the ground, this movie had its Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
OCEAN’S ELEVEN | Directed by STEVEN SODERBERGH | Written by TED GRIFFIN | Produced by JERRY WEINTRAUB | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide