Archive for Thursday, December 6, 2001

finds right balance between hipness and suspense

December 6, 2001


The appeal of the original "Ocean's Eleven" was that it looked like everyone involved in making the movie was having a thoroughly good time. This air of relaxed hedonism was contagious enough so that it disguised sluggish pacing, shoddy staging, a plot full of inconsistencies and enough martini-fueled acts of misogyny to make even Frank Sinatra devotees cringe.

Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (who won an Oscar this year for directing "Traffic") seems to hit upon all the ingredients that worked in the 1960 hipster classic about a group of ex-Army buddies who knock off a collection of Vegas casinos. And his version of "Ocean's Eleven" is one that a viewer can wake up with in the morning and not feel a throbbing headache and the sting of guilt.

For as much as Soderbergh pays tribute to Frank, Dino and the rest of the Rat Pack, he probably owes more cinematically to Guy Ritchie, the British director responsible for the recent heist flicks "Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch." As with those movies, Soderbergh utilizes groovy, electronic-tinged instrumentals on the soundtrack, dozens of underworld figures trying to outsmart each other (including a cockney black hood used for comic relief) and Brad Pitt, star of Ritchie's most current effort, "Snatch." It would be misleading to call it a total rip-off, but it's clear that Soderbergh wasn't looking to Kubrick or Hitchcock when seeking inspiration for his new crime caper.

Like his previous pictures, Soderbergh cobbles together one of the year's best casts. As ringleader Danny Ocean (the role that the Chairman of the Board popularized), George Clooney takes charge of the ensemble from the get-go. The film's opening scene is a fixed camera shot of Clooney's thief appearing before the New Jersey parole board in hopes of release. Somewhat haggard and more mature-looking than in recent roles, the actor instantly projects his smirking confidence, and it's easy to accept him as a polished con man whose charm doesn't necessarily keep him out of trouble.

Clooney's compatriots for a scheme to rob a communal vault shared by The Bellagio, Mirage and MGM Grand casinos, include Brad Pitt as a gambling playboy, Don Cheadle as a cockney explosives expert, Matt Damon as a talented pickpocket and Carl Reiner as a retired swindler.

As the owner of the casinos, Andy Garcia gives the self-assured air of an enormously powerful "legitimate businessman" whose roots are probably much shadier. His initial meeting with Clooney offers the film's most crisp verbal jousting, as they try and one-up each other regarding a relationship with the same woman. (Ole' Blue Eyes would be proud).

Others in the A-list cast don't fare quite as well. While still engaging, Julia Roberts is pretty much reduced to elegant window dressing, even though her character the ex-wife of Ocean adds a kink to the motivations behind the robbery. And Elliott Gould, as the crew's financier, gives another in a long line of performances in which every bit of dialogue sounds as if he were reading cue cards for a hearing-impaired dinner theater audience.

One factor that can be appreciated in this update by screenwriter Ted Griffin ("Ravenous") is that each of the 11 people brought into this risky venture are there for a reason. Their specialized skills are judiciously revealed as the movie progresses. (In the original film, little rationale is given for why that many men are needed to pull off the crime. It's almost as if Sinatra just kept adding friends until that ballooned the amount into a figure he liked enough for the film's title.)

Soderbergh often enjoys casting celebrities playing themselves, such as the scene with real-life senators in "Traffic." In the most amusing segment of "Ocean's Eleven," the viewer slowly begins to realize that the vain-but-idiotic club kids that have hired Pitt's character to teach them the subtle skills of poker are in fact the actors Topher Grace ("That '70s Show"), Joshua Jackson ("Dawson's Creek"), Holly Marie Combs ("Charmed") and Barry Watson ("7th Heaven").

It's clear that Soderbergh knows that this is a movie about two things: star power and plot twists (admittedly, the latter of which are often a bit hard to swallow). The director keeps his flashy camerawork and trademark scene-jumps to an all-time minimum. This allows the movie (and audience) to focus on the suspense-filled mechanics of the plot and the multitude of characters that are drifting in and out of it.

There is one nice artsy touch at the end, however, with the gang staring at the fountains of The Bellagio while a backdrop of classical music punctuates the montage. It's a scene where the men know they just might have gotten away with something spectacular, and a look of contentment creeps across each of their smiling faces. Or it's the look of a group of actors who are having the time of their lives.

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