Monday, November 23, 2009
The original Ocean's Eleven was the first of the Rat Pack films, a star vehicle meant to turn its stars into even bigger ones. Steven Soderbergh, indie darling that he is, found something appealing about that. Hot off the heels of his two most mainstream films to date, Erin Brokovich and Traffic, the director of sex, lies & videotape and Schizopolis went for the whole hog, creating what would become the star vehicle franchise of the decade. Whatever became of the sequels, though, Ocean's Eleven still holds up as a deliriously fun, completely self-aware heist comedy, a sleek but engaging trawl through the Las Vegas underworld, which is just as unremittingly glitzy as the surface level.
We are even led into this shimmering criminal world by a refined gentleman. Danny Ocean (George Clooney), a thief who got sloppy after his wife left him, is released from prison on parole which he wastes no time violating. Ocean travels to Los Angeles to find his old partner Rusty (Brad Pitt), now laying low and fleecing clueless celebrities of their money by teaching them poker -- nothing else in the whole movie is as funny as Topher Grace triumphantly laying down his hand and declaring "All. Reds." to the whistling awe of his equally moronic buddies. Ocean looks somewhat deflated by his time in prison, and he's simply too dapper to make you think of him as a thief, which makes it all the more surprising when he announces his intention to rob the vault containing the money of three casinos, the three casinos: the Bellagio, The Mirage and the MGM Grand.
Rusty and Danny know that the heist will be the biggest in history, and they need to lock down the best damn crew in the world. Somehow, perhaps through sheer charm, they convince nine men -- demolitions experts, confidence men, bank-rollers, electronic wizards, and one very small, very talented Chinese acrobat -- to participate in this suicidal venture. The payoff? A cool $160 million, which judging by the continuing spiral of the U.S. dollar might be enough to buy a Pepsi ten years from now. The heist is particularly dangerous because robbing these casinos means indirectly robbing their owner, Tony Benedict (Andy Garcia), a ruthless businessman who sees any attempt to cheat his casinos as a personal attack. Soon, we learn that Ocean wants to rob this man not for the massive payout but because Benedict "stole" his ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts, here pretty much in name only).
You may hate this film's sense of self-assured cool, but there's no denying that Soderbergh clearly understands the "Vegas movie" and he shoots Ocean's Eleven accordingly. His camera never seems to stop, mounting a blitzkrieg of Michael Mann-like technical details, witty banter, swanky five-star hotel rooms, casino backrooms filled with walls of surveillance monitors, and the mad jungle of the casino floor, a hive of desperate gamblers swarming to and fro losing their children's college funds.
It's the sort of surreal world that's stranger than fiction, befitting the over-the-top personae of the characters who seek to shake it up. Scott Caan and Casey Affleck play two Mormon man-children with intense sibling rivalry that explodes often making for great distractions in the casino but equally annoying outbursts among the crew. Bernie Mac slides headlong into the wearisome role of the Angry Black Man, but the idea that Mac's character is the one playing that card, combined with Mac's innate ability to make the most tepid and hackneyed material in the world sound as funny as a Bill Hicks rant, takes the sting out of that egregiously overused stereotype. My personal favorite of the 11 has to be Matt Damon's Linus Caldwell, a crack pickpocket who becomes the tail for whatever mark he assigned. Linus always finds himself in the middle of the minor but openly acknowledged power struggle between Danny and Rusty: like the child enduring his parents' messy divorce, Linus must field the feelings of distrust one has for the other, even as neither Danny nor Rusty gives poor Linus an ounce of important information. Damon is one of the most underrated actors working (along with his admittedly less talented buddy, Ben Affleck), and his portrayal of Linus as equal parts clueless dope and capable member of the team is the only aspect of the franchise that remains interesting through all three films.
Ocean's Eleven is meticulous, far too meticulous for such an implausible scenario; Danny and Rusty's plan for the heist makes The Joker's schemes in The Dark Knight seem about as complicated as finishing a half-solved Sudoku puzzle. Yet somehow Soderbergh makes it work, and there's actually a bit of fun in seeing the film a second time and looking out for all the barely noticeable setups for the ultimate payoff. For all its sidelining details, Ocean's Eleven maintains a constant level of fun that makes revisiting it a nice, relaxing experience rather than a tedious exercise in dramatic setup leading to an unsatisfying conclusion (that film has already been made, and it's called The Usual Suspects).
In my review of The Girlfriend Experience I mentioned how I often got bored at some stage. Even for a film as upbeat as Ocean's Eleven, that's true; this film moves as such a brisk pace that whenever it slows, even for a moment, it feels like the entire plot comes to a standstill (I believe this is called relativistic momentum, but looking at the precariousness of my current grade in Physics II I am unwilling to comment at this time). Nevertheless, Ocean's Eleven is a hip, finger-snapping salute to the city that defines American artifice. Compared to its glossy sequels, this often comes alive, especially when Soderbergh inserts brief shots of hand-held camera movement that act as adrenaline shocks just as you're thinking that the film is settling into too comfortable a groove, a groove that the sequels wore out until they cut clean through the vinyl. My biggest single complaint with the film is Julia Roberts' inability to do anything other than stand around in a few scenes; she would receive a bigger part in the next film, which sounds great on paper until you get to the matter of her playing a character who at one point poses as Julia Roberts, a failed gag that tried to go meta and nearly brought down cinema with it. But in all the places that its sequels created a noxious cloud of smug, Ocean's Eleven is bouncy and fun, and if there's something wrong with that I don't want to be right.