Archive for December 2001

Black Hawk Down

December 28, 2001

Perhaps because we are at war, the visceral combat movie Black Hawk Down has gotten a bit of a free ride from many critics. Let this be a roadblock, if a small one. The film takes a relatively recent true war story — the disastrous 1993 military effort in Somalia — and strips it down for action. It’s as if a slasher film had half an hour of sketchy character set-up, then devoted two straight hours to nothing but kill, kill, kill. There’s a certain purity to it, but past a certain point it’s just Ridley Scott playing toy soldiers.

Scott, you may recall, was once a real director — gifting the science-fiction genre with two of its finest ornaments, Alien and Blade Runner, and doing a solid job of work on Thelma & Louise that amounted to staying out of the way of Callie Khouri’s excellent script. 2001’s Hannibal was a comeback of sorts for him — the movie was his to screw up, and he didn’t — but otherwise he has collapsed into the mannerisms of his brother Tony, burying simple stories in pompous gritty style, and Black Hawk Down is the grittiest yet. The movie isn’t a militaristic joke like Scott’s 1997 G.I. Jane, but it’s on about the same dramatic level.

Screenwriter Ken Nolan’s paring down of Mark Bowden’s acclaimed book reduces the soldiers to ciphers carrying only the most functional of dialogue (and not always the most functional of weaponry). As one Black Hawk helicopter goes down, and then another, and the soldiers try to carry out frantic rescue missions while flattened by Somali fire, the movie’s businesslike relentlessness gets oppressive and exhausting — which, I suppose, is true to the actual experience, but it would’ve been nice to get to know a few of the men we’re meant to care about.

Here, for instance, is Josh Hartnett, who still looks like a high-school senior but is unaccountably getting war-hero roles in movies like this and Pearl Harbor. Whenever the camera’s on him, he purses his lips and looks grim. Let’s move on to two Trainspotting alumni, Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner, who manage to sneak some spark into their roles (a desk jockey who’s sort of eager to get into combat and a bug-eyed, deafened soldier, respectively). Then there’s Tom Sizemore, who’s going to be typecast as the Reliable Potato-Shaped Grunt for the rest of his life if he isn’t careful; and quirky talents like Ron Eldard and Jeremy Piven, thrown away as chopper pilots; and poor Orlando Bloom, previously seen ventilating Orcs in The Fellowship of the Ring, now seen as a wet-nosed private whose mishap sets the whole rotten tragedy of errors in motion.

Hartnett, Bremner and Sizemore were also in Pearl Harbor, which like Black Hawk Down was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (both films also pretentiously lack a studio logo at the beginning, as if the movies were too important for that). Bruckheimer seems to be taking it upon himself to be the trash Thucydides of the new millennium, the chronicler of American catastrophe; he’s even been warily suggesting that he might be interested in a film about the 9/11 attacks, and such a film, if nothing else, might make an ideal companion DVD along with Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down in the inevitable “Americans Under Fire” boxed set.

How is Black Hawk Down as a pure combat movie? Sometimes tight — Scott gets a lot of mileage out of rocket launchers — but eventually monotonous, with the time-honored badly wounded soldier choking out a request to tell his parents he fought hard, and his buddy’s time-honored reassuring response, “You can tell ‘em yourself.” There are a few fake-outs, such as when a downed pilot makes sure to linger over a pocket photo of his wife and kids before he’s overtaken by a crowd of enemy soldiers and then … isn’t killed.

Indeed, the characters’ chances of survival increase or decrease according to their audience-recognition factor; the guys from Pearl Harbor and the guy from Moulin Rouge will most likely make it out okay, but the eighteen Americans who died on Somalian soil are mainly played by unknowns. The fallen soldiers are listed before the end credits, not that we know them any better now than we did before the movie started.

The Majestic

December 21, 2001

A gentle, toothless, shameless movie, with a Jim Carrey performance to match. Carrey is Peter Appleton, a Hollywood screenwriter about to be targeted by HUAC for suspected Communist associations. One rainy night he goes off a bridge in his convertible and washes up on the shore of Lawton with amnesia. He bears a striking resemblance to one of the town’s many boys lost in WWII, so everyone takes him as a returning hero. Not knowing any better — for all he knows, he could be who they think he is — Peter goes along with their mass delusion and helps to re-open the town movie theater, the Majestic, along with a nice old man (Martin Landau) who thinks Peter is his son. This extremely overlong tripe — Capra-esque in the wrong way — was directed by Frank Darabont, who really shows his fatal weakness for (very long) schmaltz here. The movie may please those with a high tolerance for nostalgia and sentimentality; everyone else should wear HAZMAT suits when approaching it. Fleeting amusement is provided by Bruce Campbell as the intrepid hero of Sand Pirates of the Sahara, the adventure movie Peter wrote.

A Beautiful Mind

December 21, 2001

I’m mixed in my feelings about A Beautiful Mind — inspirational tales about mental illness are a thorn in my side — but I can’t deny how solidly it’s crafted, how well-acted, and, wonder of wonders, how intelligently written and directed. I’d not expected much from director Ron Howard, on whom I’d long ago given up (the last from him was his awful Grinch redux), or from scripter Akiva Goldsman, who perpetrated the last two Batman movies as well as Lost in Space. But here, and perhaps here only, they’ve made something that feels as though it matters.

Russell Crowe, of course, is the movie’s ringer. It might actually be harder to be a credible gladiator than a believably agitated mathematician, but Crowe, as the famously distressed real-life Nobel laureate Dr. John Nash, creates volumes out of minuscule tics and mannerisms. Nash is more comfortable with numbers than with people; Crowe, who has never seemed the most gregarious of actors — he’s a brooder, simmering in his own discontent — finds the pathos in Nash’s alienation. When he speaks to his peers, which isn’t often, Nash usually takes the opportunity to point out how much more advanced he is than anyone else. He’s not the most likable hero to occupy the center of a major Hollywood drama. Yet Crowe gets us on Nash’s side by physicalizing Nash’s intellectual egotism; he puts his body into each self-aggrandizing statement, making both ego and geekiness attractive.

Nash is a spiritual brother to the beleaguered hero of Darren Aronofsky’s debut Pi, another egghead driven around the bend by the mysticism of pattern. While his colleagues (including the always-entertaining Adam Goldberg and the raffish Paul Bettany from last year’s A Knight’s Tale) and his wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) look on helplessly, Nash develops ever more obsessive and destructive behaviors centered on top-secret work he’s doing for the government (Ed Harris, who could frighten a brick, is Nash’s main liaison, who slinks in and out of the movie, bringing shadows with him). Soon enough, Nash cracks, and the remainder of the movie steps in gently to treat his delusions. He has many relapses into madness, but eventually learns to live with his phantasms, and (as in real life) enjoys a late-life rally from both his peers and the Nobel committee.

That the movie sometimes seems to whisper that all a madman needs is the love of a good woman will not endear it to those who know better; nor will it endear it to non-fans of Jennifer Connelly, who remains — though tenderly directed by Howard — a luminous blank. You begin to feel that Nash gains the strength to fight his demons simply because his partner is so hot; the movie might be called A Beautiful Wife. In this and every movie, Connelly is presented as the embodiment of male desire, and no more; when Alicia presents Nash with a solution to an equation he’s given to her class, we no more believe it than we would if she handed him an operetta she’d whipped up overnight. The only one allowed to have much of a mind — beautiful, ornery, cracked, or otherwise — is Nash.

In the final half hour or so, the film slides into love-will-conquer-all cheeseville, yet it’s still mounted with such tact and professionalism that, yes, I did choke up a little at Nash’s Nobel acceptance speech, wherein he seems to share Sean Penn’s philosophy in I Am Sam that love is all you need. If the movie had followed Sylvia Nasar’s detailed biography more closely — we hear nothing of Nash’s bisexuality, though here and there it’s implied — it might’ve been a grittier story, instead of the well-mounted if ultimately sappy Hollywood production it is. Put it this way: given its basic mainstream parameters, A Beautiful Mind couldn’t have been much better than it is (at times, quite good), but it could’ve been a lot worse.

Vanilla Sky

December 20, 2001

It feels a little odd to suggest that the first Cameron Crowe film not to have been pulled out of his own experience — or, indeed, even his own original idea — may be his best movie so far, but Vanilla Sky takes risks that even his best prior movies (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, and, for some fans, Almost Famous) don’t get near. Crowe’s strength, and occasionally his weakness, has been the preternatural kindness of his vision — the democratic insistence that everyone onscreen has merit, the refusal to make anyone look bad. Vanilla Sky, on the other hand, gives us the first complete bastard in the Crowe portfolio, and puts him front and center.

David Aames is a late-period Tom Cruise character — cocky, arrogant, rich, catnip to the ladies. David refers to himself as “snowboarding through life,” though snowboarding implies effort. Heir to a magazine publishing house, David drifts into the offices every day, amused by the shared joke that he’s in charge (he got 51% of the company’s control in his dad’s will), though no one else is amused. He’s not malicious, particularly, just heedless of anything but his own pleasure. This does not go over well with clingy women like Julie (Cameron Diaz), who wants to be more than an easy, responsibility-free “fuckbuddy” for David; she holds out the hope that he will fall in love with her, but she faces stiff competition from his mirror.

The mirror, in turn, loses out to the enchanting Sofia (Penelope Cruz), introduced to David by his best friend Brian (Jason Lee, in probably his finest “best friend” role yet, seething with barely-suppressed resentment) at David’s lavish birthday party. Sofia is with Brian, but leaves with David, who abandons his own party to talk with her — just talk. It’s clear he’s smitten with her, mainly because, unlike Julie, she doesn’t seem to need him — doesn’t want anything from him. Crowe is careful to show us Brian and Julie (who crashes the party) getting drunk and shaking their heads over the thoughtlessness of their respective friend and lover, who is as innocently hurtful as a kitten who inadvertently scratches you while playing.

Some things happen. Those things take up the film’s remaining 90 minutes, and I cannot disclose them; Crowe scrupulously follows the story he’s remaking — 1997’s Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes), directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Others) — which holds its many plot twists aloft as deftly as a plate-spinner. Disfigurement is on the menu; the mirror disappears. Julie leaves, then comes back. A psychiatrist (Kurt Russell, in fine regular-guy form despite his professorial specs) tries to get behind David’s mask, symbolically and literally. Crowe brings in Tilda Swinton for one late scene and puts her behind a desk, where she transfixes us while not actually doing much of anything at all. In the kind of only-in-this-movie great balls-out moment I’ll never forget, Tom Cruise whirls around an empty lobby having a nervous breakdown, screaming “Tech support! Tech support!” while “Good Vibrations” blares on the soundtrack.

Crowe riffs on Abre Los Ojos, keeping it fully intact as a narrative while bringing in his own obsessions — movies and music, the sight and sound of dreams. And Vanilla Sky is very much a dream movie, or at least preoccupied with the meaning (and seeming reality) of dreams. This, as well as the eager cooperation of Tom Cruise, links it with Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, also about a self-satisfied yuppie whose balloon gets popped by an unpredictable woman. Cruise isn’t quite as soulful as Eduardo Noriega, who played the role in the original, but he gives David his own swaggering sense of entitlement — Cruise is building a large body of work in which he plays fatherless young roosters who become humbler and better people, except this film doesn’t quite give him that opportunity. He has some wild moments, though — one of my favorites is when Sofia sweetly deflects one of David’s questions with “I’ll tell you in another life, when we come back as cats,” and David reacts with simultaneous love (in his drunken state, this is the greatest thing he’s ever heard) and rage (in his current state, this is the greatest woman he’ll never have).

Crowe’s Almost Famous, to me, felt overdeliberate and solicitous, as if he’d been chewing over the story his whole life (which, actually, he had) and sought to avoid hurting any of the film’s real-life counterparts. Vanilla Sky doesn’t come out of anything deeply personal for him — he’s being a cover band here, playing the same notes, yet somehow making it his own. As always, he’s attentive to the smallest details of friendship and romance, and here he also delivers his most gaudily cinematic work yet — his filmmaking has never felt this raw and alive before, from the gray despair of a prison cell to the red lust and thrum of a dance club. This is a whole new palette for Crowe, and his excitement rubs off on us. It’s a nasty, vibrant piece of work; Crowe’s filmmaking mentor Billy Wilder — often a wonderfully nasty piece of work himself, as anyone who’s seen Sunset Blvd. can attest — would’ve been proud.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

December 19, 2001

All right, everyone can relax now — and I mean that both ways: the first of the three Lord of the Rings movies has emerged triumphant, but it’s not going to alter the course of mankind (it’s just a movie, folks). The wildly ambitious (and, fortunately, just as wildly talented) New Zealand director Peter Jackson has delivered what everyone should have been delivering for years: a good story well-told, a massive adventure painted in strokes bold and subtle on a vast canvas. I expected no less from him, though I come to The Fellowship of the Ring as a Jackson fan, not so much a J.R.R. Tolkien devotee (I last read the books, oh, twenty years ago), and this wouldn’t be my favorite Jackson film — second or third, maybe.

Given his biggest piggy bank ever and almost three hours in which to sprawl, Jackson still has to speed through the book. Invariably, when he does dawdle, he dawdles over fairly uninteresting stuff; no matter how much golden light he throws onto the Elves, for instance, they’re still pretty dull and can’t compete with the forces of evil for sheer cinematic power (the Rivendell footage tends toward the blandly idyllic at times). Jackson’s at his best here working with dark colors — the corrupt wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), who’s building an army of half-man, half-Orc creatures; the truly frightening Ringwraiths, who bring a shiver of dread into the movie every time they ride in on their black and shrieking horses; the various monster-movie obstacles, including a giant troll and the much-beloved-by-Tolkien-fans beastie the Balrog, with its ferocious whip of flame. Not to mention the chief Big Bad — Sauron, whose tainted Ring sets the plot in motion.

Pitted against all this evil are a motley crew of four hobbits, a wizard, an Elf, a dwarf, and a couple of regular guys. (No girls allowed in this Fellowship, though Jackson — to the disgruntlement of many purists — has given Liv Tyler’s Elf character Arwen a slightly more active role than in the book.) Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who has inherited the aforementioned Ring from his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm), must take it to Mount Doom and destroy it; the wise and mighty wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has advised Frodo never to wear the Ring — its corruptive power is too great — but of course on several occasions it finds its way onto his finger. It’s a proactive ring — it can even adjust itself to fit any finger.

There’s unfortunately some rushing of things that shouldn’t be rushed, even at almost three hours. The confrontations between Gandalf and Saruman (yes, I realize they weren’t in the book) feel a bit too Matrix-y — yeah, they’re wizards, but they’re also old, and should they really be able to be flung all over a vast room without breaking a hip? The Balrog gets more build-up than actual screen time; at times, the movie has the same thin, one-damn-thing-after-another tone as Harry Potter, which also tried to pack too much into a reasonable sitting time. But Jackson’s storytelling economy also serves him well here; when Bilbo gives Frodo his sword Sting (which glows blue when Orcs are near) and magical chain mail, we’re fondly reminded of Bilbo’s own adventure, which he’s busily recording in his book There and Back Again (Tolkien renamed it The Hobbit, of course). In the same scene, Bilbo shows us a flash of ring-addiction that’s chilling for being so sudden — Ian Holm, making a deep impression despite scant screen time, gives us an invaluable sense of how dangerous the Ring really is.

In addition to Holm, the film is immaculately cast. Elijah Wood is as much the ideal Frodo — wide-eyed, sincere, frightened yet determined — as Ian McKellen is the textbook Gandalf — wise, wry, sometimes self-satirical (as when Gandalf, in his first scene, tries hard to be stern with Frodo and can’t quite keep a straight face). It’s a good thing Jackson populates the Good with so many vibrant actors, because his Evil — with the exception of Christopher Lee’s Saruman, who occasionally bears an eerie, obviously unintentional likeness to Osama bin Laden — hardly has a human face. Evil in this movie snorts and writhes in shadows, or hisses to itself in demented supplication to the Ring (what little we see of the mutated Gollum in Fellowship is mitigated by what we hear — Andy Serkis deserves kudos for making that famous “my precioussss” vibrate with menace and madness).

As the first act in a trilogy, Fellowship is all set-up and quest. It inevitably suffers from reverse been-there-done-that; Jackson is competing not only with fan devotion to the books, but with all the Tolkien rip-offs and knock-offs of the last fifty years, including a quarter-century of role-playing games. I grew bored with Dungeons & Dragons by age 14 or so, so it’s a testament to Jackson’s skill that I was with the film throughout, given that it often plays like a D & D game writ large. The proceedings are a bit more solemn than usual from the previously prankish Jackson, though he still manages to sneak in some humor: the bumbling hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan); the very tall Gandalf’s trouble adjusting to the very small Bilbo’s hobbit-hole; the perpetually snoopy Samwise (Sean Astin); a dwarf one-liner that, I’m certain, did not come from the books; the burping, blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from the director himself, who, Hitchcock-like, has found his way into all his films except his puppet satire Meet the Feebles.

Jackson also, it must be said, conjures the most potent major-motion-picture magic in years. The landscapes get a tad too pictorial in the tradition of bad ’70s folk-album covers, but when Gandalf breaks out his enchanted fireworks for Bilbo’s 111th birthday party, you feel that this is what dazzlement was always meant to be, and that what we know as fireworks today are just a weak dilution of the age of sorcery. When the swords and arrows come out, as they frequently do, so does Jackson’s love of hack-and-slash; the fearless human men of the Fellowship, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the conflicted Boromir (Sean Bean), speed into the fight with full-blooded battle lust — the spectacle is all the more thrilling for packing an emotional charge. Fellowship is a big one, with two more to come; if some part of me isn’t all the way into the story Jackson has chosen, I’ll still definitely be back to see what else he does with it.

The Royal Tenenbaums

December 14, 2001

In his first three films — Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and now The Royal Tenenbaums — Wes Anderson has created a distinct and consistent world. The lackadaisical suburban thieves of Bottle Rocket might’ve gone to Rushmore Academy as kids, and Max Fischer as a pre-pubescent playwright might’ve put his work in competition with the equally precocious Margot Tenenbaum’s plays. There’s a buzz of strangeness about Anderson’s world; in its way, it’s as alien to us — and as precisely rendered — as the Middle-earth of The Fellowship of the Ring. This world has its own look and sound, with morosely defiant oldies on the soundtrack underlining the characters’ malaise or passion.

Anderson loves overachievers and underachievers — particularly people who manage to be both at once — and he’s got three of them here: the aforementioned Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adopted daughter of the clan, who peaked early as a playwright and now sulks in her tub for hours; Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller), a prodigious financial whiz overprotective of his two sons since the death of his wife; and Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson), a former tennis champ who had a meltdown on the court and thinks he’s in love with Margot, but that’s okay, since “we’re not related by blood.” Slippery ethics, but since patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) took every opportunity to remind everyone of Margot’s adopted status when introducing her, who can blame Richie?

Royal, the sort of affable bastard right up Hackman’s alley, has been estranged from his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) and children for years; one day he slinks back into the picture with the news that he’s dying. Giving himself six weeks to put things right between himself and his kids, Royal sets up a hospital room in his former house, followed in rapid succession by Chas, Richie, and Margot, who all move back into their old bedrooms, confronted daily with the surroundings of their childhood greatness. Hanging around for good measure is Richie’s friend Eli Cash (Owen Wilson, who for the third time cowrote the script with Anderson), who “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum” but has settled for being a drug-addled novelist; he zones out during a TV interview, and he defends the failure of his first book with the standard artist’s line that it was too archaic for most people to understand.

Tenenbaums unfolds like a storybook tale, but this is Anderson’s most loosely plotted endeavor yet. Like Rushmore, it’s not so much about its story as about the moods and moments the story makes possible. Here, for instance, is Margot’s rumpled neurologist husband Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray, swathed in a foam of beard) tapping sadly on a window to get her attention. Or family financial advisor Henry Sherman (Danny Glover) moving in tentatively to kiss Etheline, while she grins girlishly in anticipation, unearthing old feelings of desire and being desired just as she’d unearthed a human skeleton a few minutes before. Or a confrontation between Chas and Royal in a closet, surrounded by shelves weighed down with ancient board games, underlining the childishness of both men. Or the way all printed material we see in the movie is in the same blocky all-caps Futura font used for the title on the poster art, even the “walk/don’t walk” signs and the logos on hospital gowns — in this universe text is purely utilitarian, and the book covers we see are usually good for a laugh. Or the predictably eclectic soundtrack, wherein the Velvet Underground and the Ramones rub elbows with Mark Mothersbaugh’s otherworldly bells and organs and the beautifully apt use of “Christmas Time Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas (I have to love a director so obsessed with Peanuts that he made Max Fischer’s dad a barber, just like Charlie Brown’s dad). Or Robert Yeoman’s pristine, rigidly symmetrical widescreen compositions, which give the characters ample space to mope in solitude — vast dead air on either side of them, and vertically squashed; the horizontal proscenium of the movie becomes an oppressive character in itself.

Sound like a downer? Not really — or not if you’re attuned to Anderson’s method of keeping heartbreak at a slight remove. For him, the small moment takes care of the large emotions, and we project the rest. Ben Stiller gives a rather antagonistic performance with the tiniest bits of shading (his reading of a key line near the end brings his character nicely into focus); Gwyneth Paltrow stares at everything as if from beyond the grave, a blonde goth princess who never looks so pained as when she can’t help smiling at something. The movie doesn’t overflow with false personality; character is in the design, like the lonely-looking yellow tent in the middle of a vast room. Richie sleeps in the tent, listening to the Rolling Stones on the same breed of chunky gray record player we all remember from grade school. Now and then a “dalmatian mouse” — Chas’s invention — scampers into the frame, as if blotted with memories, or symbolic of memories blotted out. Why, we might ask, did Royal emphasize Margot’s adopted status at every opportunity? Why was he ejected from his home (the movie never says)? Is Richie’s affection for Margot a case of like-father-like-son? Underneath the film’s ornate but terse facade might be a churning tangle of backstories barely hinted at.

Gene Hackman presides over all this like a dissipated King Lear, only he doesn’t demand expressions of love from his three children; he’ll make do with expressions of non-hatred. The Royal Tenenbaums extends or plays with themes explored in Rushmore: in both, a father looks quizzically at offspring he can’t imagine he could have sired, and a protagonist is an immature liar and often dislikable, but somehow, despite himself, lovable. Tenenbaums can also be considered a loose sequel to Rushmore, in that the three past-their-prime wunderkinder could be Max Fischer fifteen years on.

If you didn’t float happily in the world of Rushmore, this movie’s mix of quirky humor and deadpan anguish won’t do it for you (I noted a number of walkouts at the screening I attended). Anderson specializes in gentle bipolar comedy-tragedies: Tenenbaums may be the most depressive movie ever to be painted in shades of red, yellow, and pink. 5

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

December 7, 2001

Only a few years ago, Steven Soderbergh was an experimental artist who’d decided to hone his directorial skills on the whetstone of the mainstream; the result in his best recent work (Out of Sight, The Limey) was an old story with a new indie pulse. But how much dabbling in the mainstream can a director do before it stops being just dabbling? Ocean’s Eleven, a smooth and absolutely meaningless lark directed by Soderbergh, is the most dispiriting evidence yet that the filmmaker once responsible for such non-vanilla fare as Schizopolis and Kafka is long gone — perhaps killed by the Academy Award, perhaps stifled long before by the cruel verities of making art in an expensive medium.

The original Ocean’s Eleven (1960) was by no means of any consequence, either. By remaking that piece of Rat Pack cronyism, Soderbergh hasn’t exactly defiled a masterpiece; I’ve only seen bits and pieces of it — Frank and Dino and the boys, shooting pool and cracking vaults with roughly the same degree of lounge-lizard detachment — but I feel I’ve seen all I need to see. I also feel that, after this year’s The Score and Heist, I’ve seen all the caper movies I need to see for a good long while. A screenwriter can toss in ornaments and complications, but these films boil down to two narrative beats: (A) A group of guys team up for the Big Score; (B) Either they get away with it, or they don’t. At this point, unless you do an everything-but-the-actual-heist movie like Reservoir Dogs, it’s a stale genre.

Working with a fairly witty script by Ted Griffin (also capable of writing meatier stuff than this — see Ravenous, no pun intended), and working with his most star-stuffed cast yet, Soderbergh luxuriates in the sheer lazy pleasure of a straightforward big Hollywood vehicle. He drives it better than most, but this one stalls on him just the same. Two of his past stars — George Clooney and Julia Roberts — are here with him, more for comfort and camaraderie than for what they actually bring to the screen. Clooney, as ringleader Danny Ocean, who orchestrates a plot to hit three Vegas casinos (downgraded from the original’s five), is suave and authoritative in exactly the same way he’s been many times before; poor Roberts is handed a zero role — Danny’s ex-wife, now involved with the owner (Andy Garcia) of the casinos — anyone could’ve walked through. Both actors have been far better before, for Soderbergh and for other directors.

Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle (another Soderbergh regular), Bernie Mac (totally wasted here as a card dealer), Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, the tiny Chinese acrobat Shaobo Qin — they all drift in and out of the plot, making little or no impression (though Shaobo Qin, like any performer with physical gifts beyond the rest of us, becomes the near-wordless star of the film by default). Pitt has a funny scene early on, when he’s coaching young movie stars (including Dawson’s Creek‘s Joshua Jackson, as himself) how to play cards, but then he recedes. Ocean’s Eleven is busy without being exciting; it showcases personalities to cover its own lack of personality. The heist itself, which gets pretty Mission: Impossible, isn’t staged with any particular imagination; Soderbergh, again serving as his own cinematographer, is more at ease with the scenes of guys conspiring quietly in casino bars. (Soderbergh has a natural eye for tone and composition; if he wanted to quit his day job, he could probably gainfully shoot other people’s movies.)

Ocean’s Eleven might have been a vibrant case of alchemy — an artist starting with a hoary piece of pulp and transcending it — if Soderbergh hadn’t been so tied to the rules of the game. Crisp professionalism only takes you so far; some of us are looking for more than that, particularly from the director of sex, lies and videotape. I don’t think Soderbergh has sold out, exactly — I think that, in his way, he thinks he’s still experimenting, in this case taking a nothing-special vanity project and trying to give it as much energy and gloss as he can. But in practice it’s not a lot different from any other A-list Hollywood offering. Perhaps without realizing it, Soderbergh has been gradually losing what made him vital and original — his sense of formal play, his eagerness to try on new clothes instead of old clothes that happen to be new to him. If his next movie is as empty as Ocean’s Eleven or emptier, someone’s going to have to tell this emperor the truth about his wardrobe.


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