Ocean’s Eleven (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.

Explore posts in the same categories: comedy, remake

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