Ocean's Eleven (2001)

D: Steven Soderbergh
S: George Clooney, Brad Pitt

Steven Soderbergh's remake of the 1960 caper movie is so slick it slides right off the stage. The film is so concerned with creating an impression of effortlessness that it practically dozes off. It leaves the viewer with a sense that they have been entertained, but not very sure of why.

Is it the presence of so many fine young actors? The film headlines George Clooney and Brad Pitt, but also features Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Julia Roberts, and Andy Garcia, not to mention more veteran players such as Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould. Maybe we think we're having a good time because we're getting such value for money in terms of sheer star presences. This was, after all, the primary appeal of the original, a seminal 'Rat Pack' film featuring Sinatra & Co. at the peak of their popularity. Yet on reviewing the film after you leave the theatre, it is difficult to recall any particular moments by any of these actors which are memorable beyond the ephemera of the scene. None of them have created particularly vivid characters and it is hard to remember anything any of them did that makes you say 'now that was a great performance from...'

Maybe the movie is entertaining because it is a pacy bit of old fashioned narrative storytelling? The plot concerns the attempt by a gang of con artists and thieves to rob three modern Las Vegas casinos at the one time by breaking into the hi-tech vault which houses all of their loot. The casinos are all owned by ice-cold Garcia, arch enemy of casino vet Gould. Gould therefore finances the gang, led by Clooney (The Perfect Storm) and Pitt (Fight Club). The pair set out, in Magnificent Seven style, to recruit a top crew eventually comprising of most of the big name stars plus a few supports. Gould's money means they can also muster equipment and props galore, which gives us the genre's requisite fetishistic display of gadgetry in operation. In the way of the caper movie (a revived sub-genre which has to have reached an apex of popularity here after Entrapment, Mission: Impossible, The Thomas Crown Affair,The Score, Bandits, etc.), the story is mainly concerned with the procedural details of planning and execution, with miscellaneous character conflicts in the wings (some stuff about Clooney's relationship with Roberts, etc.). It tells this familiar story with competence and speed, serving up exactly what you might expect from this recipe.

Soderbergh has experienced such a massive return to form in the last few years that there really was no doubt he could pull this off on the most basic technical level though, so this is hardly an achievement. He has already been over this ground to some extent on Out of Sight, a film which had the ineffable sense of 'cool' to which Ocean's Eleven aspires but does not achieve. As a technical piece, the film works perfectly well. The basic craftsmanship is there to keep this large cast on the move constantly through a story told with the required level of pace. The film also boasts the inevitable soundtrack filled with anthems and syncopated drum-beats, all contributing to a snapping fingers rhythm which screams 'cool' from every pore.

None of this is really quite enough to explain why you should feel entertained by the film though. If it is not really the cast and not really the story, what is it that pushes our buttons? Maybe it has something to do with the tone of it. The film is breezy, up-beat, ironic, filled with the kind of sidelong glances and throwaway one-liners which suggest that nothing that happens is really of any great importance or significance even to the characters being portrayed. This, one supposes, is the elusive quality of coolness which one gets one watching a film like Bullitt or even Out of Sight.

Hmmm. That doesn't sound quite right. Could it be that the film undermines itself? Is it possible that in attempting to be as blasé as possible in order to affect coolness and detachment that the film has become flippant and dismissive? Where do you draw the line between leaning back and staring at the world through barely arched eyebrows and just standing there with a smug grin on your face? There is certainly something wrong with Ocean's Eleven, and it doesn't seem to be on the level of craft or technique. It is perhaps a little bit lazy on a stylistic level given what Soderbergh accomplished with Out of Sight, The Limey, and Traffic. It certainly doesn't have the invention of Erin Brockovich in working around a routine storyline to produce a film which somehow grips and energises familiar generic material. Ocean's Eleven is generic, almost to the point where it seems like that is the point of it. The film is so smooth that it has no edge whatsoever. There is nothing under its slick exterior to give it bite and the surface, though slick, is not eventually as impressive as we were given to expect. It is such a well oiled machine that it barely requires the presence of the audience at all. It simply slip-slides away on auto-pilot, leaving you wondering if you have even seen it when it is over.

Metaphors aside, this is a film which entertains while it runs, but never really engages or excites in the way it probably should. There are too many characters and a story which really needed more nooks and crannies to hold attention and more depth to make it interesting at all. Soderbergh compensates for its basic lacks with bustle and star power, and that is enough for a popcorn-muncher or an undemanding night's DVD rental. This is something of a waste under the circumstances though, at least insofar as you can not escape the feeling that the film promises more than it ultimately delivers. A tale of double-cross and robbery set in contemporary Las Vegas featuring characters crying out for some kind of subversive counter-reading could have given us an incisive satire of postmodern America. But this is a film in which irony is part of the game and in which the actors are required to do nothing more than show up and smile (Garcia doesn't even do that: he frowns his way through the picture as if his mind is entirely elsewhere).

Ocean's Eleven will probably nonetheless prove as successful in Europe as it was in America. It is almost definitive pulp entertainment. It keeps the fans of the stars happy by not doing anything with their on-screen personae, it does not require concentration or effort to follow a story you've heard before, there are plenty of action set pieces to fill the time, and the film on the whole is as easily viewed as it is forgotten. It is cinematic junk food: it passes through the system without providing nourishment, leaving you hungry and wondering why.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.