Ocean's Eleven: Soderbergh's Commercial Hit

Soderbergh has been experiencing¬†astonishing artistic renewal, one that began three years ago with Out of Sight and The Limey, and reached an unprecedented height last year with Erin Brocovich (for which he received a directing Oscar nomination) and Traffic (which won him the coveted prize).¬† And now comes his most cmmercial (but not best), movie, “Ocean’s 11,” his star-drivn, sporadically entertaining update of the 1960 cult movie.

Just like the original Lewis Milestone’s film, which was built around the charismatic appeal of the notorious Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford), the new film is very much structured as a glossy, old-fashioned star vehicle–a throwback to Hollywood’s yesteryear–toplined by George Clooney, Brad Pit, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia, and, most disappointingly, Julia Roberts, in a pedestrian reworking of the role that Angie Dickinson so alluringly originated.

Commercially speaking, with such glorious cast, catchy poster (that imitates the art work of Tarantino’s Reservoir’s Dog, and juggernaut marketing (with the entire ensemble appearing on the Barbara Walters, Oprah, and other high-profile TV shows), the new Ocean’s 11 can go no wrong. Warner’s early holiday release should easily cross the $100 million mark, with even more formidable B.O. in foreign territories and ancillary markets. That said, regrettably, Ocean’s 11 is a rather flat, retro cool movie that many more viewers will be anxious to see than actually enjoy.

Since the material was not terribly fresh (to say the least) even by standards of 1960, scripter Ted Griffin was faced with the tough challenge of maintaining what was good about the Milestone version and at the same time update the narrative and characterizations so that they appeal to young, contempo audiences. As a result, Griffin has chosen to emulate not just the original picture, but also classic American prison-escape adventures such as The Great Escape, The Professionals, The Dirty Dozens and particularly The Magnificent Seven–Ocean’s 11 might just as well have been titled “The Magnificent 11” due to its gorgeously-looking cast. Additional artistic influences, on both Griffin and Soderbergh, include the 1973 Oscar-winning The Sting (featuring Paul Newman and Robert Redford) and the 1958 Italian classic, Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street, with the younger Vittorio Gassman and Marcello Mastroianni.

Stepping into Sinatra’s famous part (a role in which the late Steve McQueen would have been perfect had the movie been made in the 1970s), Clooney plays Danny Ocean, a dapper, shrewd con man, who, less than a day after his parole from a New Jersey penitentiary (the film’s first scene), is already planning his next big scheme. Three rules govern Danny’s “code of ethics”: Don’t hurt anybody, don’t steal from anyone who doesn’t deserve it, and always play the gamy as if you’ve nothing to lose. It’s with a characteristic nonchalance that Danny applies these norms to orchestrating what’s meant to be the most sophisticated and elaborate heist in Vegas history: Robbing the Bellagio, the Mirage, and the MGM Grand.

Following the structure of American actioners, the picture chronicles the requisite steps of recruitment for the mission, detailed planning of the heist, risky execution with both anticipated and unanticipated mishaps, and grand finale. It begins with a depiction of how Danny handpicks his crew of 11 specialists, a strategy that allows each character to have one big scene–the equivalent of a theatrical entrance–as well as providing the viewers sufficient time to spot the star and marvel at his idiosyncratic quality.

The band members include Rusty Ryan (Pitt), an ace card sharp who’s Danny’s confidante and right-hand man; Linus Caldwell (Damon), a bright master pickpocket but a newcomer with a legacy to live up to (Pitt); Basher Tarr (Cheadle), a colorful demolition genius (Cheadle); and Livingston Dell (Jemison), a surveillance specialist whose uncontrollable anxiety threatens the very success of a heist that involves stealing over $150 million from the Vegas casinos.

As was the case in the glossy crime-gangster biopicture, Bugsy (starring Warren Beatty), the most splendid vignettes belong to the old-time characters–and thesps. Hence, an ostentatiously-dressed Elliott Gould excels as Reuben Tishkoff, the former Vegas hotel kingpin, who is unceremoniously muscled out by Terry Benedict (Garcia), embodying a new type of slick and ruthlessly shrewd entrepreneur who owns the casinos. Vet comic-director Carl Reiner shines as Saul Bloom, the ulcerous old pro, brought out of retirement to play a crucial role in the heist.

In the name of political correctness that dictates cultural diversity, Soderbergh balances well the crew in terms of age, generation, and race. If Tishkoff and Bloom are almost by necessity “too Jewish” in look and outlook, Benedict represents the Latino element, and an Asian, Chinese acrobat Shaobo Qin, makes his film debut as yen, the crew’s remarkably agile “gease man.”

The weakest piece of casting is represented by Julia Roberts, as Tess, Danny’s ex-wife, who has rebuilt her life in the wake of his arrest, working as the curator of the Bellagio art gallery–and dating Benedict. Though her part is small (about three short scenes), Roberts looks tired, bored, and unglamorous, and the fact that there’s no chemistry between her and an amorous Clooney makes things worse.

The whole subplot of Danny engaging in the heist in order to regain his old flame is disappointingly vapid, despite Soderbergh’s honorable intent to revive the cheerful spirit of all those lovable Hollywood screwball “comedies of remarriage,” the best examples of which are still Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell) and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn). In aspiration rather than execution, the whole movie owes more than a bit to the notable Hawksian sensibility, as manifest in his male-camaraderie pictures, such as Rio Bravo.

Inevitable comparisons will be made between Soderbergh’s and the original film, which was just as lazy and rambling. As co-written by Harry Brown and Charles Lederer, the original, just as the remake, labors under the handicaps of a highly contrived, basically senseless yarn. Both productions are deliberately-paced, taking their time in delivering their points, and seeming unconcerned or unbothered by their hackneyed plots.

However, the original film contained an amusingly ironic (anti) climax that’s not as effective in the update. Produced in 1960, the Milestone’s version reflected the zeitgeist, specifically the historical beginning of Vegas as the new crass American capital. Moreover, the story’s flippant attitude toward crime and its amoral ideology were rather new and even shocking back then. But four decades later, Las Vegas has been so much used as the site of crime pictures (Bugsy, Casino), that the novelty of this uniquely American locale has worn, not to speak of the fact that deep cynicism and both immoral and amoral climate have dominated American movies since the Vietnam War; this may all change as a result of the September 11 terrorists attack.

What’s terribly missing from the new version, which alters quite a bit the old one by introducing new characters and subplots, is the effortless charm and ease in which the Rat Pack behaved, rather than acted, in front of the camera. The central performers of the Milestone’s film were pop culture icons (in a way that the new ones are not), entertainers-singers who basically played themselves. Cashing in on their offscreen persona and friendship, the film was more of a comedy than actioner, one replete with wisecracks, self-conscious humor, and even songs. Moreover, the performers never made an effort to submerge their flamboyant styles with their scripted roles; they didn’t have to because they knew that the public came to see Sinatra, Martin and company at the height of their popularity and well-publicized link to the then country’s new president, J.F. Kennedy.

Ocean’s 11 still manages to infuse Soderbergh’s singular vision, so clearly evident in both his indies and studio pictures. In the 1998 Out of Sight, which also starred Clooney (with Jennifer Lopez), the material was also second-rate, but the directorial treatment truly playful, postmodern, and vastly entertaining. Ocean’s 11 is also the first Soderbergh work that totally depends on–and belongs to–his magnetic stars, which may be the main reason why the film is only partially successful. Most of the male-dominated cast is so self-conscious about their roles, so ambitious to appear “cool,” and deliver their lines in an easy-going, party-like manner, that they make the entire film seem smug, vain, and too pleased with itself. Unfortunately, Ocean’s 11 shows to much the hard labor, sweat, and forced cool, which is detrimental for a film that’s meant to be light, frothy, and utterly escapist fare.