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Non-Review Review: Ocean’s Thirteen

I have a soft spot for Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Thirteen. Yes, it’s big and vacuous and ultimately empty, with a bunch of celebrities sitting around and enjoying each other’s company, but it’s also fun and diverting, composed by a director with a wonderful eye. I’d argue that it’s almost as solid as Ocean’s Eleven, and a damn sight stronger than Ocean’s Twelve.

In con men circles, that would be called "the Selleck"...

I feel like I begin every review of a Steven Soderbergh film by praising the director’s eye for colour. Ocean’s Thirteen looks beautiful, shot with a red and gold hue that makes it look like those classic sixties and seventies films, only shot through the clearer lens of modern technology. I like it when a director plays with colour saturation, and the images seem read to burst off the screen. Los Vegas is a city of neon lights, one perfectly suited to the technicolour style, and Soderbergh’s film manages to recapture a significant amount of that glory in his rich filming.

Indeed, there’s a rich vein of nostalgia running through the heart of Ocean’s Thirteen, arguably one even stronger than the “retro” style that ran through the previous films – I think that this sense of nostalgia informs a lot of what Soderbergh is doing here, and the film is much stronger viewed from that angle. “There’s a code amongst guys who shook Sinatra’s hand,” Rueben insists as his partner double-crosses him, forcing the old man to realise that he’s a long way from “the good old days.” Of course, the film glosses over the seedier aspects of Los Vegas history, including the mob ties that Sinatra shared with the city, but we can forgive it that. Looking over a modern new casino, Danny reminisces, “I remember when this used to be the Dunes.”

Putting the gang back together...

Hell, the guys are even disillusioned about the gratuitous use of CGI. On discovering that one of their merry band used CGI to stage an impressive stunt, the gang are horrified, perhaps reflecting a sentiment similar to Soderbergh. “That was CGI?” one gasps. “So those weren’t your legs?” another clarifies, as if his suspension of disbelief has just been shattered. It’s telling that Soderbergh uses any number of practical effects throughout the film, and even bases a few big moments around a planned motorbike stunt, as if to underline a discomfort with the direction of modern-film-making. Of course, if a franchise spinning off a remake of a Rat Pack film can’t indulge in a little nostalgia through rose-tinted glasses, who can?

I suspect that nostalgia played a large role in the casting of Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin as the two villains of the piece, particularly opposite a cast defined by their status as modern icons. I wonder how many young fans of Brad Pitt and George Clooney had never heard of Ellen Barkin. Pacino, in particular, has become something of a joke to many modern film fans. Imagine how incredible it was to see The Godfather or Scent of a Woman or Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon in a cinema… and pity those of us who have been reduced to catching The Recruit, Righteous Kill or 88 Minutes. The casting of the pair calls back to the work they’ve done together, in the wonderful Sea of Love. I think you could make the case that Pacino here is a lot better (or at least better used) than he has been since Insomnia.

Close, but no cigar...

Soderbergh also continues the series’ trend away from violence. I think the director has a point that violence is too much a part of modern blockbusters. I’m suggesting that it doesn’t have a place, merely that it’s quite ubiquitous these days. When Bank coerces Rueben into signing away his share, there’s the threat of violence, but no actual use of force. When Danny puts the gang back together, they rule out assassinating Bank. Hell, Danny just lets the threat of physical retaliation roll off his shoulders, like water off a duck’s back, with a single line of a rationalisation. “I know all the guys you’d hire to come after me. And they like me better than you.” When a gun does appear, it’s even revealed to be empty.

Nobody in Ocean’s Thirteen tries too hard, but I think that’s part of the fun. “Cool” is meant to look effortless. None of the cast create characters, but Soderbergh doesn’t intend them to. Their street cred comes from their movie star persons. You’re not watching Danny Ocean, despite what the title tells you, you’re watching George Clooney being cool. This sort of thing can be difficult to balance. Indeed, the last film in the series fell apart under the pretentious weight of a bunch of Hollywood movie stars sharing too many in-jokes. There are moments where the weight of the stars comes close to critical mass – “try to keep the weight down in-between,” Brad Pitt warns George Clooney, while George tells Brad, “you should settle down, start a family” – but they mostlykeep it on the right side of the line.

Banking on it...

There are other problems. The cast is still too bloated. Ocean’s Eleven had difficulty balancing a large cast, and the fact that Soderbergh keeps adding to that group doesn’t help matters. There are too many characters, and too many little in-jokes and references within the series. If Soderbergh wants the movies to be cool, they should be accessible. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the other two films, and I’m not sure I could chart all the relationships and references between them. This isn’t an epic saga, it’s just three fun movies – and the sheer volume of internal references tends to weigh the story down.

In fact, I quite like the fact that Soderbergh has gone to the effort of severely reducing the cast – writing Catherine Zeta-Jones and Julia Roberts out of the movie with an explanation that’s so small it almost slinks in under the radar. “It’s not their fight!” Danny insists. It’s a lame excuse for the fact that the actresses either didn’t want to be involved, or because Soderbergh didn’t want to involve them, but it’s quick and it’s efficient, something that a lot of elements aren’t. The return of “the Night Fox” from the previous film, for example, or the involvement of Linus’ parents, all feel like they convolute the story more than is necessary. It also seems a little unnecessary to draw in Eddie Izzard for the purposes of the film’s longest exposition sequence.

Just lounging around...

That said, Soderbergh knows how to make a film work. I love his wonderfully old-school style, from the Rat Pack songs saturating the soundtrack to the spinning motif he uses to introduce the company logo. David Holmes provides a glitzy and glamorous musical accompaniment to the slickly-choreographed chaos. Nobody on the film seems to be trying too hard, they’re all enjoying themselves. I think that’s simultaneously the best and the worst thing about the film.

I also like the script’s sharp dialogue, as the con men speak in something approximating their own lingo. Without batting an eyelid or pausing for consideration, they drop terms like “a Billy Martin” or “a Susan B. Anthony.” Of course, in each case, it ultimately becomes quite clear what they’re talking about, and I like the way that they talk in a manner that’s slick and stylish, even if it’s ultimately a little empty to the viewer – it gives the impression of substance, without have to pause for awkward intervention. Plus, you know, terms like “a reverse big score”are just inherently cool.

Barkin mad...

Ocean’s Thirteen is unlikely to end up as anybody’s favourite movie, or to generate a substantial amount of discussion. It’s ultimately a rather empty exercise in nostalgia, but Soderbergh takes the greatest care to ensure that it’s packaged in the most wonderful box possible.

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