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Ocean's Eleven   B+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Ted Griffin
Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Carl Reiner, Casey Affleck, Bernie Mac, Shaobo Qin, Scott Caan, Elliot Gould.

Review by Rob Vaux

"I love it when a plan comes together."
--George Preppard, The A-Team

I can't imagine where Ocean's Eleven would be without Stephen Soderbergh. In and of itself, the prospect of remaking the 1960 Rat Pack perennial does not fill one with confidence. For starters, the first film was nothing more than a plodding ego-fest designed solely to let Frank Sinatra and company indulge their cops-and-robbers fantasies. Second, even if the original didn't stink, there's no way to recapture the effusive cool that the Rat Pack oozed so effortlessly. What can a remake offer, then, but hackneyed schlock hastily disguised as high concept filmmaking?

But then you look closer, and see the staggering number of big stars involved. George Clooney. Julia Roberts. Brad Pitt. The names stretch off into the sunset: far more than any normal producer would hire for some cheap knock-off. Then you look further down the credits and spot the name strong enough to bring them all together: Soderbergh, a director well on his way to becoming the next Scorsese. Suddenly, what started as another tired retread has some power under its hood, and Ocean's Eleven begins looking like a legitimate movie.

Like the original film, the remake centers on an elaborate robbery of Las Vegas casinos. Unlike the first film, it employs a lot of wit in creating its scheme, and a lot of energy in executing it. Rather than use the same story in an effort to regain the Rat Pack's cool, they start with the cool... and then use it on a similar, but much more artfully executed story. In this case, the tale revolves around Clooney, who as recent parolee Danny Ocean has a nifty plan to relieve the Bellagio Hotel (and two others) of 150 million dollars. All he needs are 10 good buddies, starting with card shark Rusty Ryan (Pitt) and working his way through a Who's Who of sneaky gits. His plan is audacious, daring, and (naturally) complicated, revolving around a series of carefully timed cons and dodges. What he doesn't tell his cohorts, at least initially, is that the hotel owner they're robbing (Andy Garcia) also happens to be the man who ran off with Ocean's wife.

A vehicle like this demands very little from its audience. It sets up the elaborate caper, then lets us relax as it plays itself out, bit by bit. Soderbergh and company are smart enough to realize, however, that a straightforward film doesn't mean they can set everything on autopilot. Ocean's Eleven never takes its viewers for granted, maintaining a high energy and pep from start to finish. Ocean's plan involves a lot of neat twists, and the film has tons of fun unfurling it before us. Though a bit far-fetched, it still follows a reasonable course, and we never feel like it's cheating us for the sake of convenience.

Then there's the characters. Almost everyone here is a simple sketch, briefly introduced, then left alone to do his thing. In this case, the natural charisma of so many stars makes the brevity an asset, rather than a liability. They come in and instantly flesh out their roles, leaving no questions and keeping things moving. Ted Griffin's screenplay is full of clever lines, as smooth and careless as a chilled martini, and watching this crew banter their way through it is a constant joy. This is Movie Star Dialogue, delivered by movie stars; it may not be deep or profound or artistically meaningful, but damn, it sounds good.

The cast hits its marks with ease. No one is going to win an Oscar here, but few ensembles are as polished and smooth as this one. There isn't a sour note in the bunch, headed by Clooney and Pitt, and marked by several notable stand-outs: Garcia rebounds nicely after several years' stagnation, and the criminally unappreciated Don Cheadle steals the show as Ocean's cockney explosives expert (his near-indecipherable dialect is a tip of the hat to Soderbergh's The Limey). The one piece of trouble comes in the form of Julia Roberts, playing Ocean's estranged wife Tess. She serves little purpose beyond some flimsy motivation for Danny, and the screenplay treats her quite literally as a prize to be fought for. Her character could have been cut completely without missing a beat. Roberts certainly isn't bad, but there's nothing there to challenge her as an actress, and the role occasionally descends into some very uncomfortable objectification, tarnishing an otherwise flawless romp. Perhaps the producers wanted an excuse to get women in the theater (this is basically a big boys' movie); if so, they should have given her more to do than stand around and look pretty.

Still, no one can fault Soderbergh for restoring a little dignity to the Hollywood event film. Ideally, every big budget extravaganza should be this good; it's a pity that so few actually keep their promises. Soderbergh is one of the best directors working today, and even when he rattles off a quick bit of frothiness like this one, he still delivers more cool than a dozen Michael Bays. With Ocean's Eleven he slows down his career path just long enough to remind us that "simple entertainment" doesn't necessarily mean "listless crap."

Ring-a-ding-ding, baby.

Review published 12.10.2001.

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