Is it disheartening for Steven Soderbergh that his best movie in years is his swank Vegas caper comedy Ocean’s 13—and not his searching remake of Tarkovsky’s Solaris; his rough-hewn study of the dark side of working-class life, Bubble; or his subversive anti-Casablanca, The Good German? In those ambitious films, in virtually everything he has done since his debut, sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh has probed the unreliability of surfaces, in life and onscreen—surfaces that mask corruption, that put a glamorous sheen on the messy and duplicitous, that call into question the very medium in which he works. Now comes Ocean’s 13, which is all surface, all impossible glamour—a big lie lofted into the stratosphere by grotesque amounts of Hollywood cash. It’s so money! It’s so fun!
The movie—the second sequel in a “franchise” that began as a remake—glides in on a wave of hipsterism, on Vegas-y jazz and A-list leading men who saunter across the color-saturated screen in exquisitely tailored suits. There are no visual or moral dissonances. Our twinkling thieves, led by Danny Ocean (George Clooney), aren’t in it for the money. They’re out to avenge their friend and elder, Reuben (Elliot Gould), who—in one of several pretzeled flashbacks—gets muscled out of a deal by casino magnate Willy Bank (Al Pacino flashing his choppers under a curly hennaed thatch). Reuben is heartbroken both literally and figuratively (“You shook Sinatra’s hand!” he gasps—as if only men of honor ever did); he lies now in a quasi coma, his fragile spirit presumably waiting for news of his nemesis’s emasculation.
It’s a-comin’, because Ocean’s 13 must prove mightier than Pacino’s palatial casino and its impregnable security system. Unlike that non-team-player, these men are willing to surrender their individuality and become cogs in the greater machine, just as these stars now let themselves be pieces of the greater ensemble—although not, admittedly, for love. (The two words Hollywood actors most like to hear are “sequel money.”) In its worship of the perfect con as a multifaceted machine, Ocean’s 13 is the real remake of the old TV series Mission: Impossible, which Tom Cruise neutered when he put himself and his ridiculous running leaps at the center.
Heartthrob-wise, the Cruise equivalent here is Brad Pitt—a contented second banana to Clooney. Matt Damon is an insecure nerd. Don Cheadle is a mechanic (and hallelujah, scales back his Cockney accent, the worst since Dick Van Dyke’s). Bernie Mac is barely a blip, but the others get face time: Scott Caan, Casey Affleck, Eddie Jemison, Shaobo Qin, Carl Reiner … The new member of the team turns out to be Ocean’s previous arch-enemy, casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who resents Bank’s new place for throwing a shadow over his swimming pool. Garcia gets a fat pedestal and grooves on it: He has never looked so sleek and sharp and dangerously pleased with himself.
The previous sequel, Ocean’s 12, had an excellent farce subplot in which Julia Roberts’s Tess was drafted to impersonate … Julia Roberts. But the movie was otherwise a muddle. This one, without Julia or any love interest, is as elegant and streamlined as its hero. The screenwriters, Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders), turn the absence of wives/girlfriends into a joke: Clooney and Pitt rap about their disintegrating relationships between hashing out the minutiae of generating an earthquake under part of Vegas. As nice as a bit of cheesecake would be, this is basically a juvenile male-bonding fantasy in which women serve no purpose but to poop on the party. What sex remains is a clown show with Ellen Barkin as Pacino’s chief of operations driven mad with desire for Matt Damon in a big fake nose. (It’s good to see Barkin back after years of decorating her gilded cage.)
Are all the feints and interlocking scams and triple-crosses easy to follow? Sort of. Well, no. But Soderbergh is a savvy guy. As the plotting gets knottier, his technique gets more fluid—the editing jazzier, the colors more luscious, the whip-pans more whizbang. It’s all anchored by Clooney, looking impudent, roguish, almost laughably handsome. The character—the whole movie—seems to emanate from his well-known real-life penchant for practical jokes. Maybe Soderbergh’s work in Ocean’s 13 isn’t so superficial after all. Maybe after questioning every lustrous image in The Good German, he was liberated by Vegas, that monument to ersatz. Is it possible that only a director so distrustful of surfaces could surrender so thrillingly to the big lie?
I wonder what it’s like to grow up in a world in which so many kid shows and movies are “meta.” Characters in fairy tales lampoon their status as characters in fairy tales. Tween sitcoms and variety shows take place behind the scenes of tween sitcoms and variety shows. I’m sure most of this stuff is less pernicious than many actual fairy tales or the retro sitcoms that I was stuck watching. (Bewitched, anyone?) But what does it do to your head to come of age in a culture where nothing is straight?