December 9, 2001

Ocean's Eleven

It's all too rare that a film packed with big stars is any fun. When major studios put A-List, $20 million talent onscreen together, they don't want to take any chances on the movie- there’s so much money at stake, the final product is boring, but safe. The good news about Ocean's Eleven is that a studio did not put these stars onscreen together- Steven Soderbergh did. Since making a big splash with his debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, Soderbergh has earned the respect of actors with smart, classy, and sophisticated projects like Out Of Sight and The Limey. With the one-two punch of Erin Brockovich and Traffic in 2000, major studios are now willing to trust him with big budgets. However, the studio’s bankroll didn’t get all these names on the marquee- Soderbergh did, and he did it at a bargain.

oceansSoderbergh set out to make a fun, popcorn flick involving a casino heist, in the spirit of the Frank Sinatra/Rat Pack movie of 1960. The new Ocean's Eleven stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts. Clooney, with Pitt, scheme to steal $160 million from Andy Garcia's casino. They enlist nine con men and hustlers to make it happen. The Eleven of the title pull off the heist, Mission: Impossible style- no guns, no violence. Hardly anyone even gets their hair mussed. There are plenty of kinks in the plan as we go along- but are they kinks or a part of the plan we're unaware of?

The great casting continues below the title, with Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould as old-school Vegas cronies looking for one last hand; Don Cheadle as the bomb expert, Bernie Mac as the inside man at the casino; plus Casey Affleck and Scott Caan as the bratty, feuding footsoldiers of the gang. Everyone took pay cuts to join in the fun, and it shows; the set must have felt like a class reunion as it seems everyone has worked together before. Soderbergh has directed Clooney, Roberts, and Cheadle before; Clooney worked with Cheadle in Out Of Sight; Affleck and Damon were in Good Will Hunting, and Gould was on Friends with Brad Pitt's then-wife.

You'd think with a big cast and a fast-moving story, that there wouldn’t be enough screen time for all the principals. With such a long list of stars, you might expect some bruised egos as some of the cast could get short shrift. However, Soderbergh does a nice job of giving everyone at least one scene to shine. For example, Cheadle (Traffic, Boogie Nights), in some ways, is barely in the movie. But he gets a few brief moments to be noticed which count for a lot. A few of the great moments: Pitt's first and last scenes begin with his character eating junk food. We just watch him eating nachos for 5-10 seconds. How he can look so cool and yet funny while eating nachos is beyond me. Clooney has a scene where he plays with his wedding band. His character is not aware he's doing it, but he fiddles with his ring finger while talking to his estranged wife, and it says more about his feelings that any dialogue can.

I had some problems with the Roberts/Clooney relationship. Clooney played a similar role as a thief in Out Of Sight and squeezed out sexy sparks opposite Jennifer Lopez, including a pivotal scene at a secluded table in a dark restaurant. In Ocean’s Eleven, Clooney and Roberts’ big scenes take place in a similar setting, and suffer by comparison. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say her character is supposed to harbor a grudge against Clooney. She does unleash some sharp jabs in their snappy dialogue. However, we need more romantic magnetism underneath to develop her character arc.

It’s rare when all the pieces come together for a fun and exciting film these days. Hollywood seems to have forgotten that movies can be thrilling without gunplay, explosions, and car chases. We can only hope that the rest of Hollywood follows Soderbergh’s example. This film is not genius, it's just first-class entertainment.

Rated PG-13 for language, and one brief scene with a strip show in the background (no nudity). Hardly any violence (a few punches are thrown); no gun violence. Hardly any smoking. Hardly sounds like a Vegas movie, does it? (With Dan, Beth, and Mike. Mike announced LL was expecting twins! Framingham Premium Cinema)