For a couple of weeks in early 1960, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the rest of the Rat Pack moonlighted in Las Vegas, working the stage of the Sands Hotel at night and by day shooting a little caper picture called Ocean’s Eleven. The Lewis Milestone movie was transparently a vehicle for Sinatra and his buddies to trade on their bad-boy image, and everyone who’s seen it has been prompted to say the same thing: “It looks like they’re having a party.” Now Steven Soderbergh has remade Ocean’s Eleven and studded it with the crowned heads from a new generation of entertainers. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts will never be compared to their forebears except in terms of their megawatt fame, yet the new Ocean’s Eleven looks amazingly like the old one. While it offers the chance to gaze on several of our brightest stars gathered into one constellation, it’s not much of a movie, and thanks to a Ted Griffin script that’s a compendium of heist-movie cliches, it’s not even much of a party.
Danny Ocean is an upscale version of Jack Foley, the disarmingly relaxed bank robber that Clooney played in Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. After getting paroled from prison, Danny’s feet have barely touched the pavement before he’s plotting the mother of all heists: the simultaneous takedown of three Las Vegas casinos. With his versatile back-up man Dusty Ryan (Pitt), Danny recruits an eleven-man crew of criminal underachievers, including a demolitions wizard (Don Cheadle, working with a British accent and a dreamy look in his eye), a card-dealer with a shady past (Bernie Mac), an artful pickpocket (Matt Damon), and an aging con-man (Carl Reiner). (Ocean’s Eleven greatest surprise comes when one realizes that the gang’s potbellied gay Jewish money man is none other than Elliot Gould, looking like a shellfish under all his gold chains, and primed to give a great performance the movie never lets him deliver.) The heist is set to coincide with a high-stakes prizefight, leaving the gang two weeks to put the finishing touches on their scheme, but in that time it turns out that Danny has more on his mind than mere money. Tess (Roberts), the wife who left him when he got busted, is now keeping time with Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), the fabulously rich smoothie who just happens to own the three casinos, and when Danny starts making it a point to run into Tess in the casino bars, the entire job is put at risk.
Benedict is a pompous little snot all right, but it’s hard to fathom why the movie wants us to root against him so badly, or why it’s providing a villain at all. In the old days crooks were crooks, and we understood that a $150 million score was all the motivation they needed. But Ocean’s Eleven has to find some reason to squeeze Julia Roberts’ name into the credits, so whenever the picture runs low on montages of casino employees hustling through their routines, we’re treated to another one of her lukewarm tiffs with Garcia’s vacant casino baron or Clooney’s shallow felon. It’s not exactly Casablanca. In their few short scenes together, Clooney and Roberts don’t generate any of the heat that Clooney and Jennifer Lopez cooked up in Out of Sight, largely because Tess is a talking doll whose every line is some variant of “You can’t win me back.” And not content with turning Julia Roberts into a male accessory, the movie makes her an ugly one, photographing her from angles that make her lips look like a hotdog bun that’s floating in midair.
Like practically no other director working today, Steven Soderbergh knows how to give a movie a kinesthetic buzz with his caffeinated camerawork and simmering music tracks. Ocean’s Eleven has an additional lift in its step because it’s jettisoned everything that might weigh it down, including any quiet moments in which we might observe the robbers unprodded by any plot points. The number of casinos has also been pared, from the original film’s five to a less challenging three, and even that figure’s a cheat: Benedict’s three casinos all store their take in a central vault, so in truth only one location is being knocked over. The 1960 movie understood that we’d want to see how a mere eleven men could attack so many different targets at once, and it used the individualized decor of the famous casinos—the Desert Inn and Bugsy Siegel’s old Flamingo, among them—to keep us oriented. Most of all it had a whiff of sin, which is what a heist movie set in Las Vegas should have. This one’s set in the new, post-Mob Vegas—the Vacation Playground Vegas—and accordingly features neutered, audience-friendly criminals and a smoke-free casino atmosphere in which the extras step politely out of the way whenever a star appears. The one flaw in its silky surface comes when the robbers blow the city’s lights, and for a blissful second all hell breaks loose as the players try to grab everything they can off the gaming tables.
Not one single aspect of the actual robbery will be remembered forty years from now the way one recalls those glow-in-the-dark footprints from the Sinatra flick. The only footprints that Griffin and Soderbergh follow are those of recent high-tech heist flicks like Mission: Impossible and Die Hard. To crack the vault Danny Ocean’s gang has to get past all the usual laser sensors, fingerprint-recognition systems, and closed-circuit TV cameras, and they do it in all the usual ways, all the while fooling the casino’s security staff with tricks that a dog wouldn’t fall for. Griffin came up with one great invention—a Chinese Cirque du Soleil-type acrobat who has to make a catlike leap across the vault’s interior—but fails to give him the great scene the character deserves, settling instead for a ramshackle bit of business involving a bandage on the acrobat’s hand. Perhaps trying to remedy all this, Griffin has grafted some late double-switches onto the movie’s endgame, but these only mess up the heist’s emotional flow, so that we never get that zing of satisfaction from seeing all the parts of the plan emerge into sudden clarity. We’re even denied anything like the morbid twist ending that nearly redeemed the unredeemable original film.
At best, Soderbergh is wasting his talent on Ocean’s Eleven; at worst, he’s deliberately dumbing himself down for it. Whatever the case, there’s practically nothing in this movie’s direction that couldn’t have come from Jerry Bruckheimer and his stable of facile technicians. It’s depressing to see the man who helped spark the indie revolution now making pictures that bow and scrape before the most depleted Hollywood conventions. And Soderbergh seems shellshocked by his ability to attract premiere movie stars: he uses their presence as a substitute for heart, and winds up striving for emotional responses that Ocean’s Eleven doesn’t come close to earning. Late in the film his camera pans down a row of carefully positioned crooks, and as Debussy soars on the soundtrack their faces display a depth of feeling that hasn’t been visible anywhere else in the movie. Does Soderbergh think this Mount Rushmore will move us just because its faces include so many famous ones?
The sight of those faces may be enough to make moviegoers salivate, but drooling is a Pavlovian response when the actors have to only show up. Ocean’s Eleven works on the cheapest side of our relationship with movie stars, the mindlessly adoring side that makes us go gaga thinking about the rich, the beautiful, and the famous. We aren’t like the crowds of the Great Depression, whom the studios sheltered from the foibles of their idols; though actors can still act as our healers, we know too much about them now to look on them as deities. Yet Soderbergh throws his Clooney-Apollo and Roberts-Aphrodite up there on the screen as if their giant faces alone should keep us from noticing that these gods are fast asleep. The scary thing is that he’s probably onto something. Throwing stardust in an audience’s eyes is always a safe bet, even in Las Vegas.
– Tom Block