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Non-Review Review: Ocean’s Eleven

Everybody likes to take it easy sometimes. Just because we generally work hard on offering some sort of deep insight on the way that people (or the world) work doesn’t mean that – every once in a while – you want to just kick back and take things easy. And so it is with Ocean’s Eleven, which is considered (along with its two sequels) among the lighter work in Steven Soderbergh’s ambitious filmography. If you ever wondered what the man responsible for ambitious (if not always effective) movies like Che and Traffic does to relax, I can’t help but imagine it might look a little bit like this. Ocean’s Eleven is a triumph of style over substance. There’s not a lot going on underneath the shiny surface (hell, for all I know it’s dead under there), but the exterior just oozes effortless cool.

A drop in the Ocean...

The movie is a very loose remake of the Rat Pack heist caper, with Soderbergh rounding up an incredibly impressive ensemble to play his would-be criminal masterminds. All you really need to know is that Danny Ocean – freshly released from prison – is planning a job in Vegas (a big job) which may or may not be more personal than he’s letting on beneath his suave exterior. So he rounds up ten of the very best professionals out there to help him pull his caper – a cast populated with recognisable names and faces, headlined by Clooney as Ocean, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Scott Caan, Casey Affleck, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner and Elliot Gould.

Granted, none of the cast seem to be trying particularly hard, but that’s the appeal. The movie doesn’t ask you to accept these characters as people who know what it is to live outside the law – sure, the movie gives us little hints of backgrounds for the more famous faces, but we’re still watching this movie for the star power. Perhaps it’s inevitable, as a leading cast of thirteen (the eponymous eleven, plus the mark and his wife) won’t get too much development in a two-hour film. The movie feels casual – there’s never a sense that anybody on the cast will be referring to “their craft” or “their method” – but that is perhaps the appeal. Clooney has an effortless charm and the crew chill together in almost the way we’d want to imagine famous people hanging out in real life.

Soderbergh has fun with this. We’re watching a movie, he knows, but we’re always astutely aware of the actors more than the characters (and this is something he’d touch upon far too heavily in the sequel). So he makes his characters actors. Although they are conmen, Soderbergh relishes the performance aspect of the confidence tricks – be it Brad Pitt posing as doctor in a wig from Austin Powers, the crew building themselves a little set for rehearsals or the appearance of numerous figures (Lennix Lewis, Topher Grace, Joshua Jackson) as themselves. It’s reflexive – we’re watching a bunch of actors playing a bunch of criminals playing actors. Soderbergh doesn’t labour the point here as he would in the movie that follow, but it’s ticking away in the background.

A Caan-do attitude...

Speaking of which, it’s fun to note the director’s skill at visual composition. There are light and soothing shades present in every scene which combine with a soft fusion jazz soundtrack to present the idea of effortless cool. It’s a conscious throwback to the sixties, the era of cool – it’s suave and sophisticated. In fact, Soderbergh seems to be consciously harking back to the era with every frame of celluloid. The character bemoan the state of modern life – in particular one scene where the music in the club is so loud that Brad Pitt can’t hear anyone else speak. There are conscious references to the old days, from the use of the original version of A Little Less Conversation (though the movie would lead to the release of a remix) to Soderbergh’s use of old-fashioned screenwipes and split screen (a method pretty much consigned to history before 24 revived it the following year). The “pinch”, an electromagnetic device, looks like something from a sixties horror film. There’s a rumour that Soderbergh himself originally wanted to make the film in black & white, another indication of how consciously old-fashioned the director was – and how much of a throwback he wanted this to be.

It’s also interesting to note that Soderbergh consciously resists putting violence in his film. In an era where every blockbuster features guns or fist fights, Ocean’s Eleven feels more like a sort of classical approach. He even avoids a few of the clichés that we would associate with the typical Vegas film. When he wishes to demonstrate how vicious his bad guy can be, Soderbergh doesn’t offer us a story about bodies buried in the desert like in Casino or tell tales of physical violence done to a cheater, he explains that after the casino owner had the would-be thief locked away for ten years, he “bankrupt his brother’s tractor dealership”. That’s cold. Sure there are explosions, but nobody is ever hurt – even the guards the crew needs to disable are knocked out by sleeping gas. Even the eventual (and, in this sort of film, inevitable) “casino backroom beating” scene doesn’t play out as you’d imagine – it is itself a set-up. It’s nice to see Soderbergh demonstrating that you can make a fun mainstream action/thriller without resort to physical threat or violence – although maybe it says more about modern cinema.

Of course, all this gets us away from the fact that nothing about the movie is particularly smart or insightful. The cleverest moment in the film occurs early on, when Clooney himself outlines why audiences love this sort of film:

Cause the house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes. The house takes you. Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet and you bet big, then you take the house.

It explains why we love this sort of heist thing and why Ocean’s criminals can remain sympathetic. It isn’t anything new or deep, but it is at least smart.

The flipside is that the movie’s cons aren’t anything to write home about. Indeed, the twists that aren’t based on ridiculous plot devices (like an EMP you port around in a van) are fairly predictable and ca be spotted well in advance. A movie like this needs some teeth – a new idea, or a shock twist, or a character you can invest in. Soderbergh spends his time crafting the film’s style into something amazingly cool, but it ends up feeling unsubstantial. In a way, it feels like everyone is going through the motions. Of course, these are highly talented people going through the motions, but it still doesn’t feel particularly organic or energetic.

Ocean’s Eleven is cool. It puts a lot of work into being effortlessly so. It’s a well put together film from a bevy of skilled individuals, but there’s absolutely nothing going on underneath – it spends its time on autopilot, which makes for a very straightforward journey. That doesn’t make it a bad or disappointing film, just a “cool” one. Nothing more, nothing less.

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2 Responses

  1. A very good escapist film, but not much else. I’m okay with that though.

    • It isn’t something I’d seek out to watch, but I wouldn’t flick away if it was on.

      I should turn that into an official rating.

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