Very infrequently, it’s possible to let go of logic at the movies because there’s something better to grab onto. In the case of Ocean’s Eleven, you’ll be happy to clutch the tails of some truly fantastic suit coats for an improbable but immensely enjoyable ride.
The most accomplished, unapologetic triumph of style over substance since Charlie’s Angels, this sublimely weightless heist caper, directed by Steven Soderbergh, is an in-name-only remake of the 1960 Rat Pack farrago about 11 wise guys who decide to take Vegas for all it’s got. A much-publicized, star-spangled cast floats through this film as well, but it’s a measure of how far we’ve come as a hero-worshipping nation that they’re actually required to act in this film, with none of the clunky, self-aware mugging of the original.
It starts with the rueful savoir-faire of George Clooney. Wearing a gorgeous sports coat and riding an escalator into a casino in the film’s early moments, he reaches the peak of his sleek, steely game without saying a word. The rest of the film is his nightclub, and he holds court with innate, quiet flair.
He takes over Sinatra’s role as Danny Ocean, who hasn’t been out of prison for 24 hours before he begins hatching a massive heist. Immediately enlisting the help of his buddy Rusty (Brad Pitt), who’s making a living teaching poker to young Hollywood stars (like Joshua Jackson and Topher Grace, who winkingly play themselves), Danny unfurls a vague plan to rob the shared vault of three Las Vegas casinos.
In so doing, Danny plans to risk the wrath of Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), the ruthless casino boss now dating Danny’s ex-wife (Julia Roberts, given an “Introducing” credit in the final roll). They’re pretty thin reasons for a robbery, but that’s not the point—the journey is much more important than the starting point or the destination. In fact, we don’t get many of the details of the intricate plan until they’ve already occurred, at which point Soderbergh retreats in the narrative to show us what we missed.
Danny and Rusty begin assembling a crew that’s crazy enough to try it. Among them are two brothers (Scott Caan and Casey Affleck) from Utah, known as the Mormon Twins, who do some of the funnier grunt work. There’s also Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner in two exceptional performances as geriatric wise guys; Matt Damon as a pickpocket with special skills and Frank (Bernie Mac), a blackjack dealer who gets the whole plan started.
The 11 thieves aren’t the only men at work. Oscar-winner Soderbergh (Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic), who also photographed the picture, seems to have taken it upon himself in the past four years to single-handedly raise the aggregate quality of popcorn movies in this country. His exceptional touch with actors is put to perfect use here—he understands his cast’s charisma, and he never gets in its way with intrusive plot twists or camera work. Clooney is given free rein, which he never abuses. Likewise, Pitt is at his effortless best as he pops up in nearly every scene, while Roberts gets plenty of mileage out of a few short scenes that amount to little more than a cameo. As cinematographer, Soderbergh imposes a visual will on the surroundings, tinting the desert air with strange hues we don’t often see elsewhere. The result is both naturalistic and cool.
For all Soderbergh’s fine work, Ted Griffin’s script squanders a few key opportunities. With characters this rich and charismatic, we’re dying for any nugget of backstory, but the script is remarkably parsimonious. This fantastic world would be even richer if there was a wild story or two behind these immaculate clothes. In particular, Pitt, who’s so uncharacteristically sly in his performance, seems to drop out of nowhere and go nowhere from there. Griffin should have taken a lesson from Guy Ritchie, whose two caper films excelled in sketching detailed characters with a few broad strokes.
But every lingering doubt about this film’s logic and worth simply don’t stand up to the immense pleasure of watching cool people do cool things. It’s basically a film about the pleasure of being a handsome, sharp-dressed man, and in Soderbergh’s hands, that’s more than enough to keep us occupied for hours. Style triumphs over substance, and damned if it doesn’t make you feel fantastic as it succeeds.
Ocean’s Eleven (PG-13) ***1/2 Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.