The Theory of Chaos

Monday, December 24, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Ocean's Thirteen

Originally published 6/12/07
Full review behind the jump

Ocean’s Thirteen

: Steven Soderbergh
: Brian Koppelman and David Levien, based on characters created by George Clayton Johnson and Jack Golden Russell
: Jerry Weintraub
: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Scott Caan, Casey Affleck, Eddie Jemison, Shaobo Qin, Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, Eddie Izzard, David Paymer, Julian Sands, Bob Einstein, Vincent Cassel

The central gag of the modern
Ocean’s franchise, now on its third round with Ocean’s Thirteen, was established in a throwaway wink in its first episode. It showed Danny Ocean (George Clooney) calling on his loyal partner Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) as he was teaching some young Hollywood pretty boy actors how to look like they know how to play cards. As they left the club, squealing admirers thronged around the likes of Topher Grace, while George by-God Clooney and Brad by-God Pitt slipped nonchalantly into the night.

The series has played out like a sly love letter to glamour and stardom, which it sees as much more precious commodities than money and fame. When anyone who watches the evening news can discuss the weekend box-office results like they mean something, we’ve stopped seeing the movies as something that can make us gape, something that can make us utterly stupid by the simple thought of
God, look at how he looks in that SUIT! We’re in an age without many real movie stars, the ones who can live comfortably on that much screen real estate and hold all our projected fantasies. Clooney and Pitt, they’re two of the best we have in this bereft age, and who are Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan but the play-acting product of two giant stars very aware of their screen image? When Cary Grant played a cat burglar in To Catch a Thief, he was so dashingly impossible to ignore it became part of the movie’s fundamental joke to think he could slink unnoticed around Paris. These pictures are the closest equivalent to that sunny absurdity we may ever get.

Danny Ocean’s capers, as always produced by Jerry Weintraub and directed by the prodigious Steven Soderbergh, work best when they let us in the room for the capering, so we can enjoy as much as they do how divinely silly the notion is that George Clooney could escape detection by slapping on a fake mustache.
Ocean’s Twelve lost track of that principle, and wanted to coast on admiration from afar alone. Ocean’s Thirteen doesn’t exist, in the traditional sense, out of any emotional need to carry on any extant storylines. It operates as a cocksure and charming admission to fans that the filmmakers now remember what we wanted, and would enjoy the opportunity to provide it for us again. As a movie, it’s a superfluous and ungainly thing. As an experience in old-fashioned dazzle unburdened by self-seriousness, it’s a hoot.

If Soderbergh weren’t one of the top filmmakers working today, he could easily make a handsome living as one of the best cinematographers. As always operating under the alias “Peter Andrews”, he splashes up combinations of blue skies and glowing amber-hued skin that will give you the strong urge to have intercourse with the nearest willing party. First and foremost he’s provided us a movie that’s a divine pleasure just to look at, to bask in flashing bulbs and color palates that seem swiped from all the coolest clothing and architecture of the last forty years.

The story, penned by Rounders team Koppelman and Levien, is slapdash though frequently witty; I like the yes-that’s-what-he-said line about the high-class restaurant that serves “Cantonese-inspired Szechwan cuisine”. The plot involves a reunion of Ocean’s A-Team of well-dressed burglars to avenge one of their own, aging Vegas kingpin Rueben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould). He’s been muscled out of a deal by the unapologetically ethics-free Willy Bank (Al Pacino, blending ego, sharkiness, and Robert Evans’ glasses), and the shock of it has left him at death’s door. Ocean’s team whips up a plan of the most appalling complexity to ruin everything Bank loves, a plan which ends up requiring both old friends (Eddie Izzard as tech-man Nagel), and old enemies (Andy Garcia as casino magnate Terry Benedict, who still enjoys playing these games no matter how often he ends up in second place); along with, as a side effect, a minor revolution in Mexico.

These tangents are worth the misses for the hits, since they allow the stars to take pokes at their own superhuman aura. There’s a shot where Clooney and Pitt, in a few minutes of downtime from their dozens of interconnected schemes, are just watching Oprah together, and their unfolding reaction to her self-aggrandizing beneficence is just as goofily lovely as when Robert Stack wept for Dumbo’s Mother in 1941. I also appreciate how Matt Damon, playing Linus, the earnest teacher’s pet of the gang, gets to give the ol’ college try to a scenario James Bond would have been at home in, with the help of some advice from Maxim magazine and a dangerous accessory called “The Gilroy”.

It never approaches the confident snap of the original, where every piece clicked into place at the right time, with just the proper mix of surprises and the satisfying emotional thread of Ocean’s quest to reclaim his wife Tess. The wives are left at home this time around, letting the boys have their night out, and that’s an old-fashioned but not always bad idea. As with Ocean’s Twelve I think there are already too many characters and tricks for the audience to really relax – the first half-hour is a downright dizzying spree of exposition, and many of the obstacles along the way seem basically arbitrary.

But let us be honest with ourselves – this is an arbitrary movie. It exists solely for the purpose of its own superficial dazzle. It, like its predecessors, celebrates the double act of Clooney and Pitt, always performing convoluted thieving with devastating suavity. It is about fashion, and timing, and yes, how they all look in those suits (and Ellen Barkin in that dress, by the way). This time around, I’m thoroughly okay with all that.


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