Ocean's Eleven
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 7 December 2001

The house always wins 

"Everyone's doing such a bang-up job, I can't imagine it won't be spectacular fun. And I for one can't wait to see this movie."  
       
--Julia Roberts, in "HBO's First Look: Ocean's Eleven"

Movie stars. Like so many terminators, they are relentless. They can't be reasoned with, can't be bargained with, they don't feel pity or remorse, or fear. And they absolutely will not stop. But why should they? It's their job, after all, to be everywhere and be everything, to bring joy to the masses and profits to the few, to appear in movies (of course), on TV, in magazines, in newspapers, in shopping malls. Okay, so maybe they're not always happy about such promotional excesses: all those talk shows, fawning fans, and hotel suites must get tedious. 

Yet, they soldier on, and in so, earn the thanks of a grateful nation. They pledge time and money to good causes, get teary on camera, mean what they say. They look so fabulous, they understand their worth, and yet they are still willing to spill their guts on Oprah. And you believe them. This is the genius of the U.S. star system: as remote and special as celebrities seem to be (indeed, as much as they are primped and permed and processed to be), you can believe you have a stake in their success, that it matters to you if Renee Zellweger is dating George Clooney or if Britney Spears is a virgin. It's fun to care about something because you think they care, that you have access to their lives and feelings. Watching celebrities perform as if they are not performing, can be the most moving, most meaningful part of celebrity worship. 

Hence, Ocean's Eleven, Steven Soderbergh's star-studded homage to star-studdedness. Hence, as well, movie stars Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, and Don Cheadle sitting down with Barbara Walters and Katie Couric, Leno and Letterman, even spending a few minutes with Pink, for an MTV version of Entertainment Tonight. This last is a vaguely batty idea, resulting in a train-wreck-like compelling interview sequences I've seen in a while: dear sweet Pink brings along a list of Boring Interview Questions (the kind parodied by recent movies about the movie business, like, Julia Roberts' own American Sweethearts), and poses them one by one to a few of the Ocean's Eleven stars, behaving as if she is genuinely nervous to meet Brad Pitt, just you would be... except of course, Pink has a new CD to hand out to her interviewees, who smile as they take this token of their blushing fan's appreciation. You have to hand it to these movie stars: they know how to work their own brilliance.

Such self-conscious gimmickry is at the center of the Ocean's Eleven marketing engine for months. Consider the December 2001 Esquire magazine gambit, where Clooney interviews Roberts, and vice versa: two way-cool and self-loving movie stars conversing with each other in a restaurant, laughing uproariously and making fun of the process while revealing "themselves" in ways that they would never do for the reporter, because, of course, they care not that said reporter is observing from the bar and will be transcribing the recording afterwards. How clever and radiantly movie-star-like is that?!

The occasion for this interview -- and the bijillion other fabulous marketing moments featuring Clooney, Roberts, Pitt, or Damon that you've seen in the past month -- is, of course, the release of Ocean's Eleven, Steven Soderbergh's remake that's not quite a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack romp in Vegas. The original, as you've probably heard, was less a movie than a rationale for the Frank Sinatra and friends Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis Jr., to hang out and get paid at the same time, maybe coinciding with show-dates in Vegas, maybe not. The movie is notoriously not-good, mostly talky and tedious (except when Dean Martin sings Sammy Cahn's swingy "Ain't that a kick in the head," a couple of times), but no one cares because it's about watching the guys, and Honorary Rat Shirley MacLaine for a minute, "be themselves." (Angie Dickinson also shows up for a two scenes, as Sinatra's ex, but she actually seems to be acting a part, and pretty well, unlike everyone else.) This not-goodness is part and parcel of the first Ocean's Eleven's appeal: it's not concerned with plot but with that performance of access. It's lovely to see Frank and Sammy and Dean hang out, improvise, horse around, in  Sinatra's casinos, where they performed live anyway. Who cares if your sense of access is false?

The new movie is a little less swanky, but it's just as smirky-in-love-with-itself, and that actually carries it along for a bit. If it lacks the first one's sheer nerve, it makes up for that with showy cinematography (by Soderbergh under a pseudonym, as in Traffic), Stephen Mirrione's keen editing, and David Holmes' smooth, lounge-ish score. Better than anything else, the caper is set in Vegas, which tends to look better on wide, saturated-color movie screens than it does in person. It's too perfect: even more than Hollywood, Vegas is a star-lovers' paradise. 

Where the first film understood the simplicity of its own concept, and the Soderbergh version is slightly more elaborate, the main appeal is the same in both: stars being themselves. In 2001, the mechanics are changed slightly: both films involve eleven men stealing lots of money from Vegas casinos, but in the new one, Danny Ocean (Clooney) is a just-released prison inmate, not a WWII veteran, and the new Danny's girl issues are much less worked out (he has this true love thing going on; Sinatra couldn't be bothered with such silliness). As the new Ocean's Eleven opens, Danny has "paid his debt to society" and is ready to resume a life outside. He's pissed though, and wants to get back some of what he lost: he believes that "because the house always wins," this is a good reason to try to mess with the house. (This is the second stroke of genius of the U.S. star system, that a star can pretend not to be the "house," and thus win your sympathy.)

Danny has vengeance on his mind, targeting Terry (Andy Garcia), billionaire owner of several Vegas hot spots and the man currently dating Danny's ex-wife, the splendiferous Tess (Roberts). To win this high-stakes game (and yes, the gambling metaphors run rampant here), Danny enlists the help of old scam-chum Rusty (Pitt), introduced as he's instructing a group of pleasant-enough but clueless teen and sorta-post-teen stars to play cards (Joshua Jackson, Holly Marie Combs, Traffic's Topher Grace). Clearly, Rusty needs Danny.

More than that, these guys are made for each other, the perfect buddy unit (which makes the other characters rather insignificant, but they do their best to provide lively, well-acted backdrop). Rusty is practical and exacting, Danny scheming and dreaming, into Big Pictures. Never mind the little detail that this time, Danny's Big Picture has to do with "winning back" his ex, thus leaving Rusty at a bit of a loss by film's end... more about that later. The supporting crew ranges in degrees of movie-starness, much like the 1960 movie's cast did. Danny and Rusty recruit pickpocket Linus (Damon), licensed dealer/Vegas insider Frank (Bernie Mac), sage conman Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner), financier Reuben (Elliot Gould), munitions expert Bashir Tarr (Don Cheadle, wrestling with one heck of an unconvincing Cockneyish accent), electronics expert Livingston (Eddie Jemison), "grease man," a.k.a. Chinese-only-speaking contortionist Yen (Shaobo Qin), and the driver/mechanic brothers, Virgil (Casey Affleck) and Turk (Scott Caan). All come together to rob the money from three mega-casinos, conveniently stored in one place, the super-well-guarded basement safe of the Bellagio, sure to be extra-specially chucky full on the night of the Lennox Lewis-Wladimir Klitschko heavyweight bout.

This is a nice touch, because the film is all about heavyweights, about clout and how they wield it, about access and how they perform it. And so the metaphor extends. As Clooney tells Roberts in Esquire, although the industry is "male-driven," she is the inspiring, stimulating exception, an old-fashioned "female star" who outshines her male counterparts. "It's hard," he says, "For a leading man at times to hold his own against you." I suppose this explains why the new Ocean's Eleven lines up eleven men to hold their own against Julia.

The men look good. And Tess, even with all her Julia-juju working, looks less good. I mean, she looks amazing, in flawless costumes, lighting, and makeup, and Roberts is the Best American Movie Star and an Oscar-winner. But Tess suffers, plot-wise. Between Danny and Terry, both self-absorbed, obsessive rich guys (stars in their own ways), she's got a ridiculous and wholly unbelievable choice to make, a choice that is not in the first film. By the time this choice becomes the supposed climax in the movie after the caper stuff, which is much more interesting), the movie has lost considerable steam.

Then again, this is the kind of choice that you might imagine a movie star making, a movie star whose emotions you might recognize or even share. For Tess is really just an observer here, like you. The boys are where the action is. They love themselves and one another. You might wish that Bernie Mac's Frank had a little more to do, because Bernie Mac does charge up whatever scene he's in, but perhaps he's still working on his movie star cred. (He wasn't on the Barbara Walters special, either; though he has since showed up on Leno, razzing him about not understanding what he meant by "black movies.") Roberts might take your breath away, as Clooney has observed more than once, but the boys are the stars here. Check Clooney on Premiere's cover, in mid-laugh because he's that spontaneous and delightful. And check "All American Heartthrob" Pitt on the cover of Vanity Fair. These guys know how to look like movie stars. Even when the news inside such magazines might be grim, about holy wars and military tribunals, this is how the U.S. manages its nerve, mounts its interests, and takes care of its own. Brad Pitt doesn't know how to be anyone but himself, and that's why he's a terrific movie star: the background surf, unbuttoned shirt, and look away from the camera -- all this demonstrates just how movie-starness is done. The plot, like I say, is beside the point.

Directed by:
Steven Soderbergh

Starring:
George Clooney
Brad Pitt
Julia Roberts
Casey Affleck
Scott Caan
Don Cheadle
Matt Damon
Andy Garcia
Elliott Gould
Carl Reiner
Shaobo Qin
Eddie Jemison
Bernie Mac

Written by:
Ted Griffin

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
not be appropriate
for children under
13.

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