Early in the entertaining, instantly forgettable remake of Ocean's Eleven (Warner Bros.), former casino owner Reuben Tishkoff (bare-chested Elliot Gould in a howlingly tacky bathrobe and boxers) explains why he's helping the master thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney) plan a $165 million robbery of his old establishment: "I owe you for the thing with the guy in the place."
That line is emblematic on so many levels. The writer, Ted Griffin, clearly needed to give Tishkoff a motive for the sake of narrative credibility; I imagine him typing, "I owe you for the [INSERT] with the [INSERT] at the [INSERT]." He could subsequently have written: "I owe you for saving my ass with the IRS at Caesar's Palace," or "I owe you for getting the rabbi's wife out of my room after the goiter operation," or something, anything specific. But Griffin (or director Steven Soderbergh) must have figured: "Who are we kidding? It's Brand X exposition; let's make a joke of it." And it's a good joke—a postmodern, post-Mamet one. But it also underlines the trouble with caper comedies. Vampire movies come in different flavors; modern westerns have learned to darken their archetypes; disaster flicks vary according to the calamity; but a heist picture is a heist picture is a heist picture. There just isn't much you can do with the formula; and Soderbergh and Griffin make it hip to be generic. For better or worse, they barely break a creative sweat.
It's for better because their offhandedness is charming and stylish, like a tuxedo with its tie loosened—or at least a tuxedo with its tie loosened on Clooney. Mr. Handsome saunters out of prison with his monkey suit roguishly mussed; then he's off to Atlantic City, Los Angeles, and, ultimately, Las Vegas to assemble a team for the most audacious triple-casino robbery in history (or at least since the 1960 Ocean's Eleven, which targeted five of them).
I'm a sucker for assemble-the-samurai sequences, even a middling one like this. Here is Brad Pitt as Rusty Ryan, a card shark teaching callow movie stars to play poker (although Pitt is the only one onscreen who resembles a callow movie star); Don Cheadle in mid-heist as Cockney safecracker Basher Tarr; Matt Damon in furtive, self-effacing mode as a Chicago pickpocket called Linus; and a Chinese acrobat (Shaobo Qin) who's sure to add a fillip of Hong Kong action. Can that little old Jewish con man, Saul Bloom, be Carl Reiner? It is! Not a lot of time is wasted gathering Ocean's 11. (The others are Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Edward Jemison, and Bernie Mac.) There are specs and diagrams to ponder; obstacles to weigh; the odious casino owner (Andy Garcia) to bring on to sneer at the hero; and a reason beyond filthy lucre for risking so much—regal Julia Roberts as Ocean's ex-wife and the bad guy's squeeze.
Soderbergh has become a cunning technician—smart enough to know when to employ a fancy cinematic syntax (Out of Sight, The Limey) and when to keep his best cards face down. Ocean's Eleven remains linear even at the risk of plodding; it isn't meant to take off until its second hour. Then the scheme commences and Soderbergh's camera (he's the cinematographer, as in Traffic, under the name "Peter Andrews") becomes fluid and hyperalert, following one character being dragged off-screen, picking up another gliding into the casino unmolested, coming to rest on a third surveying the scene with wry satisfaction. After spotting the twists a mile away in this year's other (lousy) impossible mission films (The Score, Heist, Bandits), I was chagrined—happily chagrined—to be successfully faked out, a step behind the writer and director the way the villain is a step behind Ocean. The movie is mechanical, but machines can be elegant, even inspired.
If only its cogs and pulleys were memorable, or it gave off some sparks. I've never been able to make it all the way through the original Ocean's Eleven, but along with everyone else I can summon up images of Frank and the Rat Pack in action (or semi-action—they didn't exercise many acting muscles). The fun in Hollywood heist films is seeing stars with established personalities trade on our knowledge of their lives and careers. That means watching Frank and Dino lazily lob their lines back and forth in what was probably the only take over drinks that were probably real; sensing Sammy's internal debate over whether to suck up to or challenge Frank (no contest: suck suck suck); wincing as little Joey Bishop labors to hold the attention of the more charismatic Italians; and wondering how many of these guys got to sleep with Angie Dickinson.
When, in the remake, Brad Pitt trades information with Matt Damon, the colorless aspect of one magnifies the colorless aspect of the other, and there's nothing passing between them except plot points. (Pitt has little screen personality anyway; in Spy Game, he makes Robert Redford seem like a colorful eccentric.) Compare this to the sloppy, joshing repartee between Damon and Ben Affleck in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back—a film that in some ways has more in common with the original Ocean's Eleven—to see what's missing. Only Clooney and Roberts have any razzle-dazzle presence, and she's virtually smothered by her goddess-courtesan role. (Couldn't the moviemakers have found a less 19th-century angle on women? This was retro even in 1960.) Cheadle adopts a Cockney accent that's better than Dick Van Dyke's but misses the musicality of the real thing, and it flattens his performance. The Chinese guy gets a couple of back flips—that's it. The most vivid scenes have a bitter edge. Bernie Mac has to pretend to be snared by the Gaming Commission, and he injects a note of authentic African-American rage. And Reiner has gravitas: one foot in a New York delicatessen and the other in the grave.
It's odd to be criticizing a director and a cast for not doing a little more slumming; but there's a difference between a bunch of lazy in-jokes strung together (cf Cannonball Run II) and a film that recognizes and exploits the sexy excitement of movie stars fooling around with other movie stars in a disposable narrative. (Even the best heist pictures—Rififi or Big Deal on Madonna Street or Topkapi—qualify as disposable narratives.) The way you make a picture like Ocean's Eleven seem less generic is by using the stars as stars, as icons of wealth and power, as themselves. That might seem false to the aesthetic of a serious auteur like Soderbergh, but in its way it's more truthful—and riskier. George Clooney is doubtless less interesting than most of the characters he plays, but he's more interesting than Danny Ocean: There's more in him to plumb. Ditto Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, even Brad Pitt. I left Ocean's Eleven thinking I'd seen a much better movie than I'd expected—and feeling a little cheated.