Ocean’s Thirteen (2007): Soderbergh’s Third Panel in Popular Franchise

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (World Premiere, Out of Competition)–Returning to Vegas and adding new characters and subplots to “Ocean’s Thirteen” only partially resolve the narrative and structural problems faced by Soderbergh’s popular franchise.  The series that began on a high note six years ago with “Ocean’s Eleven,” and then continued with “Ocean’s Twelve” to middling results.

Most critics disliked “Ocean’s Twelve” due to its self-conscious yarn, European setting, and laid-back tempo. The public’s reaction also was mild, judging by the disappointing box-office results, compared to the worldwide records achieved by the first picture. The filmmakers themselves have publicly acknowledged their laissez-faire attitude-George Clooney has gone on record saying, “Maybe we were too lazy.”

Though slightly improved, the third chapter again shows that the real fun, original wit, and energy that marked the first segment, and to a certain extent the second, are now gone. And since the novelty of spotting the stars and observing their cool behavior–and haute couture–has also diminished based on familiarity, “Ocean’s Thirteen” just plods along from one scene to another, with plenty of Hollywood style but lack of momentum or relevancy.

Watching the film is like visiting seductively attractive friends that, no matter what they do or say, you want to be in their company for a short while (emphasis on short). “Ocean’s Thirteen” is like a long journey punctuated with divertissements along the way: Smart one-liners, self-reflexive references to the stars’ off-screen persona, and so on. (See below).

A star vehicle par excellence, Oceans Thirteen reunites George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Eddie Jemison, Shaobo Qin, Carl Reiner, and Elliott Gould. Al Pacino joins the glamorous cast in a major role as the greedy Willy Bank, and Ellen Barkin fills the bill as the feature’s only femme, playing Banks’ right-hand woman, Abigail Sponder.

Julia Roberts, who had a cameo in the first film and a major part in the second, is not only gone, but no references are made to Danny Ocean’s marital status, or love life for that matter. In fact, other than a funny sex (or rather foreplay) scene between Matt Damon, who’s in mask with a fake nose to steal jewelry, and Ellen Barkin, as a horny woman of a certain age, there are no romantic interludes.

More a revenge than a heist saga, “Ocean’s Thirteen” is based on a very simple premise. Willy Bank (Pacino), an unscrupulously ruthless casino owner, swindles Reuben Tishkoff (Gould) out of his share of a new Las Vegas casino. Bank never imagined that the odds were against him when he double-crossed Dannys friend and mentor Reuben, putting the distraught Reuben in a hospital bed in critical condition.

For most of the film, Reuben is bed-ridden, with his comrades paying him visits-and reading him melancholy letters he has no desire to hear. Danny and the gang seem to have only one reason to pull off their most ambitious and riskiest casino heist–to defend one of their own.

Miscalculating badly, Bank might have taken down one of the original Oceans eleven, but he left the others standing. Worse yet, Bank’s action gives them a shared purpose to take him and his empire down on July 3, the night of what’s meant to be his greatest triumphthe grand opening of his new casino, appropriately named The Bank.

Their strategy is twofold. First, there’s money involved. The band plans to ruin Bank financially by turning the tables on the precept that the house always wins. But the real knockout punch is targeted at Banks personal pride, his reputation as the only hotelier who has earned the Royal Review Boards Five Diamond Award on every single one of his hotels.

In “Oceans Eleven,” Danny wants to get his wife (Julia Roberts) back and take down casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), so the guys all work together to undertake an incredibly elaborate heist. “Ocean’s Twelve” is about the group using their skills to literally surviveto get out of the trouble that they got themselves into in “Ocean’s Eleven.” In contrast, “Ocean Thirteen” is all about friendship and the ties that knot when a senior member is brought down.

Indeed, more than the previous segments, in this one, director Soderbergh and his writers adopt the prevalent paradigm of Howard Hawks, centering the saga on male camaraderie, cool professionalism, and group loyalty. “Ocean’s Thirteen,” like Hawks’ “Rio Bravo,” is about a bunch of professional men who cherish each other’s company on and off duty–with as little as possible interference by women or the outside world.

For Danny and his wild bunch, the ultimate humiliation is that Reuben is brought down by an unworthy outsider like Bank’s Pacino, a crass and greedy businessman with taste or manners. To that extent, Danny and his team rally together to save Reuben’s honor and they are not above using their previous nemesis Terry by promising him a major chunk of the profits and other benefits. This element is what drives and unifies the current story, which goes beyond the heist.

As team members, they complement each other with their skills and share a strong esprit de corps, Danny and his amigos come up with a plan that’s elaborate, dangerous and near impossible. The point is made: There are no limits when it comes to one of their own.

If memory serves, in this segment, Danny and Rusty (Brad Pitt, the best dressed man) have the biggest parts, and they are often seen together, unlike the rest of the team that has smaller but still well-written parts, and often operate individually. The ultra-cool dialogue and is delivered in a nonchalant way (like who cares), which works well. Soderbergh and the scenarists don’t let the banter slow down the proceedings, which move in a breezy pace. Unfortunately, the heist’s technical and scientific elements are so complex that they are hard to followbut ultimately it doesn’t matter because the movie is not about plot.
Two of the film’s highlights involve TV’s Queen of Talk, Oprah Winfrey. In the first, Clooney is caught off guard with tears in his eyes by Rusty, while watching the Oprah Show. In the second, Terry is interviewed by Oprah and lends cadence to a new concept, “charitable heist.” (Describing more specifically the circumstances will spoil the fun).

Just before the story ends, there is a reflective scene with a touch of nostalgia that refers to Vegas of yesteryear and the heroes’ first encounter with what has become the Capital of Crass. There may be an autobiographical element in Clooney’s monologue that he first visited Vegas 22 years ago, when it was “so different.”

The film concludes in a smooth, knowing manner at the airport, with the cast’s three most physically appealing members, Clooney, Pitt, and Damon, sporting dark glasses and exchanging bon mots like “See you when I see you.” Jokes referring to the actors’ real life can also be detected in the farewell between Pitt and Clooney (both in their 40s and both multiple-winners of “Sexiest Man Alive”): “Keep the weight off. Have a couple of kids!”

A smart director, Soderbergh knows that the format has become tired and that the script is slender–basically a series of vignettes. As a result, he relies on stylistic flourishes, such as lurid colors, sexy costumes, ostentatious interior dcor, and technical devices, such as split screen, fast tempo, bravura tracking shots, and some stunning framing. These devices are meant to camouflage the meandering nature of the skeleton scenario, credited to Brian Koppelman and David Levien that seldom builds narrative momentum. Koppelman and Levien had previously delved into the milieu of inveterate gamblers in the poker drama Rounders. That movie, which was directed buy John Dahl and co-starred Matt Damon, had a better script and stronger characterization, but was not as well-directed and pout together as “Ocean’s Thirteen.”

Indeed, along with the stars, what unifies the trilogy and elevates it above the trappings of its source material is Soderbergh’s masterful direction, which again impresses with splendidly staged scenes flaunting visual fluency that’s missing from the film’s textual properties. As a yarn, “Ocean’s Thirteen” consists of numerous brief scenes, some lasting a few seconds, offering grand visual and aural pleasure that often underscores the lack of emotional engagement in the story.

Technically, the film’s package is ultra-accomplished due to Soderbergh’s own lensing (using the pseudonym of Peter Andrews) and his elaborate play with light and color. The movie is shot in bright, hot colors, with yellow, red, and purple dominating the casinos’ interiors, and blue and gray the exterior scenes. The whole movie benefits from the rich and diverse color palette, which changes from scene to scene.

The creative team, headed by production designer Philip Messina, editor Stephen Mirrione, costume designer Louise Frogley and composer David Holmes, deserves credit for making the kind of glossy picture that only Hollywood knows how to.

I hope that after the artistic and commercial flop of “The Good German,” which was all about style and homage to Hollywood of yesteryear, and “Ocean’s Thirteen,” which should be commercially successful, Soderbergh will find material worthy of his considerable talents.

Credits

A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures of a JW/Section Eight production.
Produced by Jerry Weintraub.
Executive producers, Susan Ekins, Gregory Jacobs, Frederic W. Brost, Bruce Berman. Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Screenplay, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, based on characters created by George Clayton Johnson, Jack Golden Russell.
Cinematography: Peter Andrews.
Editor, Stephen Mirrone
M music: David Holmes
Production designer: Philip Messina
Supervising art director: Doug Meerdin
Art director: Tony Fanning
Segt designers: Aric Cheng, Todd Cherniawsky, Scott Herbertson, Al Hobbs, Dawn Brown Manser, Ron Mendell, Maya Shimoguchi, Robert Woodruff
Set decorator: Kristen Toscano Messina
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Sound: Paul Ledford

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 122 Minutes.

Cast

Danny Ocean – George Clooney
Rusty Ryan – Brad Pitt
Linus Caldwell/Lenny Pepperidge…Matt Damon
Terry Benedict – Andy Garcia
Basher Tarr/Fender Roads…Don Cheadle
Frank Catton – Bernie Mac
Abigail Sponder – Ellen Barkin
Willy Bank – Al Pacino
Virgil Malloy – Casey Affleck
Turk Malloy – Scott Caan
Roman Nagel – Eddie Izzard
Yen/Mr. Weng – Shaobo Qin
Saul Bloom/Kensington Chubb…Carl Reiner
Reuben Tishkoff – Elliott Gould
Livingston Dell – Eddie Jemison
The V.U.P… – David Paymer
Francois Toulour – Vincent Cassel
Greco Montgomery – Julia