Ocean’s Eleven

The remake of “Ocean’s Eleven” proves that Hollywood can still make them like they used to, as long as stars and filmmakers are willing to put aside their egos and hefty paychecks. As light and buoyant as an anorexic skydiver, “Ocean’s Eleven” is both smart and funny, a rare combination these days.

“Ocean’s Eleven” is a wonderfully engaging caper film, that unlike the recent rash of heist films (Ronin, The Score, Heist), never takes itself too seriously. The emphasis is on having a good time, and that’s exactly what director Steven Soderbergh, working from a snappy script by Ted Griffin, provides.

As a respected actor’s director (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Out of Sight), Soderbergh was able to recruit a star-studded roster of talent, including an affable George Clooney as the mastermind of a $150 million robbery of three Las Vegas casinos. Clooney is absolutely perfect and quite charming as Danny Ocean, an ex-con fresh out of prison, anxious to pick up where he left off.

Ocean plans to rob the central underground vault of three Las Vegas casinos owned by ruthless businessman Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who just happens to be dating Ocean’s ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts), who serves as the curator for the Bellagio art gallery.

After convincing friend and partner Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) that the job is about the money and not the girl, the two begin rustling up a team of specialists needed to pull off the robbery. They find their seed money in former casino owner Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould, a standout), who despises Benedict for running him out of business.

Ocean and Ryan use their individual connections to flesh out the team, including former flimflam man Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner), who has retired to Florida; Cockney explosives expert Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle); second-generation pick-pocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon); inside man and card expert Frank Catton (Bernie Mac); surveillance expert Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison); grease man Yen (Shaobo Qin); and drivers-utility men, brothers Virgil (Casey Affleck) and Turk (Scott Caan, channeling his father from “Freebie and the Bean”).

With “Ocean’s Eleven” in place, the con begins, and what a grand con it is. What I love about caper films as opposed to heist films is that we’re not always privy to the bottom line. Heist films are much more meticulous in their plot detail. In caper films, things just happen and we accept them (when Basher needs a nuclear accelerator to disrupt the power in Las Vegas, they have no problem acquiring one).

With heist films, the audience becomes part of the team, which creates suspense but very little surprise. With caper films, we’re only allowed to see bits and pieces of the puzzle, thus becoming observers rather than participants.

Soderbergh and Griffin have taken great liberties with the original premise, and the results far exceeded my expectations. I was just hoping for a good time, yet I was constantly surprised by how sharp and funny the film really was. Far from just being just a two-hour photo op, “Ocean’s Eleven” features finely tuned characters and equally rewarding performances. As a writer, Griffin gives the characters much more depth than the plot requires.

The characters are just as complex as the robbery, and under Soderbergh’s direction, there isn’t one bad performance in the film. Soderbergh has so perfectly cast the film that every time we meet one of the characters, we feel as if we’ve known them forever. That shorthand allows him to immediately jump into the caper.

How refreshing to see veterans Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner not only co-star with members of Hollywood’s $20 million club, but more than hold their own. Gould is marvelous as the flamboyant former casino owner whose hidden resentment fuels the con, while Reiner’s dramatic turn as the mysterious businessman who gains Benedict’s favor, really floored me.

Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother) and Scott Caan had me in stitches as the two raffish but brainy brothers who constantly resort to childish behavior, but always rise to the occasion when needed.

Roberts is luminescent as Tess, who believes she has found security but not real love in the arms of Benedict. We know the moment Ocean and Tess exchange glances her heart belongs to him. You can’t blame her. Benedict may be rich and powerful, but he’s not really much fun. Garcia makes that perfectly clear with a performance that convinces us Benedict is all about the money.

The rest of the cast is a comfortable fit, including the city of Las Vegas, which Soderbergh and Griffin have appropriated for the film. “Ocean’s Eleven” isn’t set in some fictional version of Las Vegas. The filmmakers create a twisted sense of cinema verite by using real casinos and hotels, even though the owner’s real names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Behind the camera, Soderbergh, who serves as his own director of photography, bathes this fake reality in pleasing ambers that make everyone and everything look rich and spellbinding. Editor Stephen Mirrione incorporates nostalgic wipes and fades to good use, while David Holmes’ jazzy musical score defines cool.

Remakes are always tricky, but since the original “Ocean’s Eleven” was more noted for its cast participation than anything else, Soderbergh has no difficultly making this film his own. As one of the best directors working today, Soderbergh’s ability to draw honest, natural performances out of his actors makes him the perfect choice to head up such an endeavor. The trust he shares with his actors allows them to have a good time while still respecting the work. You sense that in every scene, and a good time is had by all, including the audience.

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George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia, Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. 116 Minutes


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