Movie Review: Ocean's Eleven
FILM REVIEW: OCEAN'S ELEVEN
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
"Ocean's Eleven" is a movie that tries to summon up the essence of "cool" and almost succeeds. This all-star remake of the 1960 Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin-Sammy Davis Jr. Las Vegas heist movie directed by Steven Soderbergh with laid-back grace and an air of cunning corruption is an elegant, slick, pleasingly shallow picture full of people we like to watch (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle) doing things a lot of us might like to do, if only we were this good-looking, resourceful and crooked.
As we watch this sexy cast maneuvering through all the familiar Hollywood heist moves and countermoves with star Clooney trying to steal ex-wife Roberts from casino czar Andy Garcia while his buddies try to rob Garcia's three casinos there's a soothing sense that, however dangerous the proceedings may seem, none of it really matters. Real blood won't flow, real fortunes won't change hands, real people won't suffer or die. They're having what Sinatra himself would have called a "gasser of a time." Clooney's Danny, an ex-con fresh out of prison, wants to rob the Bellagio, Mirage and MGM Grand casinos in one night, partly for the dough ($150 million divided by the 11-man crew) and partly because he hates the immaculately organized, supremely unlikable casino boss, Terry Benedict (Garcia), who stole his wife, Tess (Roberts), while Danny was in the slammer. If Danny and his guys (especially Pitt) have cornered the market on cool, Benedict has all the options out on smug and ruthless.
Preparing the ultimate fall for this rich bully, Danny gets his right-hand man and expert facilitator, Rusty Ryan (Pitt), and a financier, Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), and together they assemble a crack crew, including rising young grifter Linus Caldwell (Damon), explosives ace Basher Tarr (Cheadle), surveillance-system fixer Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison), con artist and impersonator Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner), Chinese acrobat-contortionist Yen (Shaobo Qin), inside blackjack dealer Frank Catton (Bernie Mac) and the bickering, all-purpose Malloy brothers, Turk and Virgil (Scott Caan and Casey Affleck, respectively).
As with any top heist movie, from 1955's "Rififi" to this year's "Heist," there are kinks in the scenario, things that go crazily wrong. We get the pleasure of watching Ocean's bunch put the caper together and maybe the pleasure of watching it amusingly fall apart.
The plot is old-style Hollywood cool, and so is the cast's attitude. The actors grin knowingly at each other, stroll through the corridors of slot machines and blackjack tables looking great, feeling good, almost purring with self-love and high good humor. It's a fantasy of sexiness and easy wealth. After giving us two terrific movies last year, "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," that almost hummed with consequence and meaning, director Soderbergh, with his glittering star crew, is backpedaling, coasting. But it's fun to coast, just as it was back in 1960, when the original "Ocean's" came out, defining "cool" for another era.
A surprising number of writers (and even current moviemakers) have knocked the '60s "Ocean's Eleven" as a mediocre show with an inflated reputation, but actually that movie has just the reputation it deserves. Directed by Lewis Milestone ("All Quiet on the Western Front"), it's a slick, likable if slightly lazy studio movie and by far the best of the Frank-Dean-Sammy hipfests, hampered only by the fact that it doesn't let them sing enough. Dean and Sammy do a song apiece to Nelson Riddle's orchestrations; Frank doesn't even bother, perhaps because he didn't have to. This is the movie that firmly established him as Chairman of the Board.
The original "Ocean's Eleven" asked us to swallow a lot in order to enjoy it the gang was supposed to be Danny's old World War II paratroop commando unit but audiences, of course, were more than willing. It was 1960, the first year of Kennedy's Camelot, and it was also the heyday of Sinatra's band of showbiz brothers, a wild bunch who were known, interchangeably, as both the Rat Pack and, more often, The Clan. (The "Holmby Hills Rat Pack" was the name of Humphrey Bogart's old informal drinking club, of which Sinatra was a prime member, along with Bogey, Lauren Bacall and David Niven; The Clan was the Sinatra-led group that formed after Bogey died.) In 1960, Sinatra was close to the seats of power fellow Clanmate and "Ocean's" co-star Peter Lawford was a Kennedy in-law and he was at the height of his charisma, his command. "Ocean's 11" is about Hollywood superstars strutting their stuff, and it's a sign of the movie's easy arrogance that Sinatra lets the movie be set in Vegas, the '60s playground of the Mafia.
For all their variety and superstardom, the current "Ocean's" cast just doesn't have that kind of resonance. Though in many ways as gifted and likable, they aren't as close friends. Nor does this movie reflect our times and cultural climate (or today's showbiz and political elite) as much as the first one did.
Soderbergh, who also photographed this film under his pseudonym, "Peter Andrews," proved himself a master of the contemporary crime movie just last year, and he keeps his recent hot streak going: from "Out of Sight" through "The Limey," "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic." Though "Ocean's Eleven" is the most physically challenging work he's done he's laboring a bit at the kind of chore a Tony Scott, Martin Brest or John McTiernan might have executed with elan he still manages to show us a good time.
Soderbergh has a flair for good-humored, brainy suspense: for putting smart, attractive characters into believably dangerous, interesting milieus and letting it rip. And if you wanted to put together an A-list of modern movie guys to rob a casino, Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Cheadle and Mac might almost certainly head your list. Clooney radiates good-guy self-confidence; Pitt oozes tense, boyish charisma; Damon is nervously agile; and Mac has a great lazy, slurry hip quality. The others play their usual chords with casual skill. Only Cheadle tries a real stretch, playing Basher as a nervy cockney. It's not a complete success, but at least it's gutsy.
Alongside their younger, sleeker colleagues, Gould and Reiner supply real old-pro comic finesse. As the threadbare dog-track hustler Saul, whose job in the heist is to impersonate a weird Eastern European high roller and distract Benedict, Reiner has even generated believable Oscar buzz. And if those two provide a bridge to the older audience, Julia Roberts, sparkling as always, coming after her feminist triumph for Soderbergh in "Erin Brockovich," is there to bring in the women at least those women not content to just guy-gaze.
This, of course, is a classic guy fantasy just as the first movie was. Of course, there's our nagging suspicion that crime doesn't or shouldn't pay. But Las Vegas, that empire of the mercenary and boneyard of the Cosa Nostra, a place where the house always wins, is not exactly a milieu that encourages moral sensitivity or sympathy.
That was part of the kick of the first movie, too: the way it temporarily shucked moral questions and reveled in boy's-night-out irresponsibility. So does the current "Ocean's Eleven," which is good, expensive, easygoing fun. It's no masterpiece, but why should Soderbergh or anybody get three in a row?
Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Ted Griffin, based on a screenplay by Harry Brown and Charles Lederer; photographed by "Peter Andrews" (Soderbergh); edited by Stephen Mirrione; production designed by Philip Messina; music by David Holmes; produced by Jerry Weintraub. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday, Dec. 7. Running time: 1:56. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language and sexual content).
Danny Ocean George Clooney
Rusty Ryan Brad Pitt
Tess Ocean Julia Roberts
Linus Caldwell Matt Damon
Terry Benedict Andy Garcia
Basher Tarr Don Cheadle
Turk Malloy Scott Caan
Virgil Malloy Casey Affleck
Reuben Tishkoff Elliott Gould
Frank Catton Bernie Mac
Saul Bloom Carl Reiner
Livingston Dell Eddie Jemison
Yen Shaobo Qin