An all-star remake of the all-star original, “Ocean’s Eleven” is a lark for everybody concerned, including the audience. Breezy, nonchalant and without a thing on its mind except having a little fun, this lightweight caper doesn’t take itself seriously and hardly expects the viewer to do so either, which itself sets it apart from any other mainstream film Steven Soderbergh has ever made. Watching George Clooney compete with Andy Garcia for Julia Roberts while plotting with Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and some other good-looking guys to knock over a Las Vegas casino vault will sound like a pretty good deal to most of the moviegoing public, meaning that Warner Bros. will be making some happy trips of its own to a vault, wads of cash in hand.
Legendary, after a fashion, as the film that put the Rat Pack together on the bigscreen for the first time, and in a Vegas setting no less, the 1960 production is remarkable for nothing other than its cast. It is, in fact, an amazingly lazy and lax piece of work, one in which you often feel that it was all director Lewis Milestone could do to get the guys in front of the camera at the same time to say their lines. Watchable up to a point for the ethos it evokes and historical moment it represents, lethargic pic has no intrinsic credibility or suspense.
Although they can’t begin to be compared iconographically to Frank, Dean, Sammy and the rest, the stars are the main event here as well. In this day of $20 million players, it’s rare to see an Irwin Allen-sized lineup of several bona fide movie stars in the same picture, but Clooney and Soderbergh made it happen and it’s a mild treat to watch the thesps good-naturedly bouncing off one another, no matter how inconsequential the material.
Even more amusing is observing two seasoned old pros, Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould, devilishly stealing every scene they’re in from their more glamorous cohorts.
A good part of the fun in this kind of picture derives from the mastermind’s rounding up his crew, each one a specialist in a certain area that will prove critical to the success of the job. Such is the case here, as the debonair Danny Ocean (Clooney) is no sooner released from a four-year stretch in the pen than he begins approaching his key personnel.
In Atlantic City he recruits casino dealer and fellow ex-con Frank Catton (the instantly winning Bernie Mac); in Hollywood he recruits card sharp Rusty Ryan (Pitt in Steve McQueen mode), who needs a challenge; in Chicago he finds Linus Caldwell (Damon), son of a legendary con man; in Florida he locates elderly down-on-his-luck hustler Saul Bloom (Reiner), and in Vegas he successfully pitches his plan to bejeweled moneybags Reuben Tishkoff (Gould), a former hotel and casino tycoon who has been deposed by the new king of Vegas, Terry Benedict (Garcia).
The plot is outlandish, seemingly impossible: To rob the vault, located 200 feet underground, that holds the cash that covers all the chips in play at the three hotel casinos — the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand — owned by Benedict. On the night in question, when a heavyweight championship fight will bring plenty of high rollers into town, the holdings are expected to amount to $150 million.
How the heist will be pulled off is another question, one the silky-smooth Danny makes sound complicated but feasible. To manage it, he calls in the remainder of his team: A Cockney demolition wizard (Don Cheadle, curiously unbilled onscreen but included in the press notes), whose task it will be to shut down electrical power in Vegas at a precise time; a sweaty surveillance man (Eddie Jemison); disguise-happy drivers and delivery twins (Casey Affleck, Scott Caan) and “grease man” Yen (Shaobo Qin), a Chinese acrobat whose unusual ability to fold himself in half at the waist and fit into tiny containers qualifies him as an important cog in the wheel.
Then there’s the part Danny doesn’t bother to mention: Terry Benedict’s personal art curator and girlfriend Tess (Roberts) happens to be Danny’s ex-wife, and he wants her back. When Tess makes her first entrance, 45 minutes into the action, it’s clear that the feeling isn’t mutual. And when Rusty learns that the motivation for the job is personal, not purely professional, he’s briefly so upset that he wants Danny out of the picture as well. But Danny perseveres, knowing that his only chance with Tess lies in his getting the better of the seemingly invincible Benedict.
Since virtually the entire narrative in Ted Griffin’s script is procedural, in that every scene is in some way related to the eventual execution of the robbery, it’s somewhat surprising that Soderbergh puts so little effort into building up excitement in the heist itself.
But then again, from “Rififi” on, this has been done a hundred times, so the director perhaps rightly decided not to try to inflate with bogus suspense a sequence that, if presented with alleged realism, might have been exposed as more preposterously far-fetched than it already seems. Suffice it to say that this film does not present criminals with any ideas they could easily put into practice.
No, the film is all about surfaces and behavior and grace notes. Working as his own cinematographer under the nom de camera of Peter Andrews, as he did on “Traffic,” Soderbergh bathes his actors and settings in a flattering warm glow but retains a measure of the rough-and-ready visual style he developed on his last picture. Steering clear of traditional Hollywood glamour photography despite the obvious temptations, helmer attractively frames the beautiful faces and luxurious surroundings (the production had virtually free rein at the Bellagio for weeks) in images of moderate textural grain, giving the film a grittier look than usual for this sort of extravaganza.
Much of the film is about pretending and about getting away with something. This applies to dapper Danny, of course, and Clooney has no problem making him the cool and commanding figure the others are willing to follow into what looks like a foolhardy adventure.
But the greatest “actor” here is Bloom, who literally has to shed his old-Jewish-two-bit-dog-track-habitue skin to become a gravely fastidious billionaire of indeterminate origin in order to worm his way into Benedict’s exclusive circle. Fretting inside and battling poor health, Bloom is made into a choice creation by Reiner, making one wish the character could have been given even more screen time. Same can be said of Tishkoff, with Gould’s wonderful and surprising delineation of a flamboyant but non-caricatured old school queen prompting speculation that the vet thesp’s range has been decidedly untested.
Entire cast seems spontaneous and relaxed. She has more to do than Angie Dickinson did in the original, but Roberts is still basically The Girl here, albeit one very much worth fighting over and bedecked with fabulous clothes and jewels. Pic could have used a more formidable adversary than Garcia’s Benedict, who is very much the slick entrepreneurial parvenu; with someone like Robert De Niro in the role, the entire enterprise would have taken on some welcome weight without at all throwing off the fun dynamic.
David Holmes’ score is characterized by a frisky jazzy feel that is at times abetted by other musical moods, notably that of Debussy’s “Clair de lune.” Original pic is repped by Dickinson and Henry Silva, who fleetingly appear in the crowd for the Lennox Lewis-Wladimir Klitschko prizefight that occurs the night of the robbery. Film’s coyest touch comes in the end credits, which list all the male players and then conclude with “…and introducing Julia Roberts as Tess.”