The 21 Club

Starlight: Julia Roberts and George Clooney in Ocean's Eleven.Photo: Bob Marshak

Ocean’s Eleven is an elaborate heist picture set in Vegas, but the real quarry isn’t $150 million-plus in loot; it’s the cavalcade of movie stars director Steven Soderbergh parades before us. George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Andy Garcia are the most prominently featured, and Soderbergh spotlights them as if they were a higher species of hominid. The movie, in a very real sense, is about the privilege, the sexiness, of being a movie star. Certainly it isn’t about the heist; never was a McGuffin more of a McGuffin. If there is any incentive to see this film, it’s for the same reason many people saw the original, 1960 version with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.: We want to watch celebs acting real cool. (That version, by the way, doesn’t hold up at all; it’s the Rat Pack in a mousetrap.)

How much cool this cast actually radiates is another story. Some of its members, such as Clooney and Roberts, epitomize the kind of old Hollywood glamour that would have fit right into the Bogart-Bacall forties. Their attractiveness carries a flagrant sense of sexual entitlement; they know they’re sizzling, and they find this knowledge not only exhilarating but funny (and they’re sexier for finding it so). One of the ways you can tell Ocean’s Eleven is really about stardom is in a sequence where Roberts, playing Tess, the bitter ex-wife of Clooney’s recently paroled Danny Ocean, accuses him of wasting her life while he was whiling away half a decade in the penitentiary. “How can I get my five years back?” she asks him, though she looks as if she had been pampered by a pasha during all that downtime. I don’t think most audiences will complain about such lapses any more than they will object to the movie’s highly implausible plotting. (Not having to worry about logic probably made things a lot easier for the screenwriter, Ted Griffin; if he were a real bank robber, he’d make Woody Allen’s character in Take the Money and Run look like John Dillinger.)

Proving more of a problem with audiences, at least those that aren’t terminally starstruck, may be the way Soderbergh overreaches with some of the other deities, like Pitt, and underreaches with the likes of Don Cheadle – all playing members of the team of eleven Danny Ocean has assembled to simultaneously knock off the Bellagio, Mirage, and MGM Grand. Pitt has often taken chances in terms of the roles he accepts, and he’s lighter and looser here than he’s been in a while, but he doesn’t, despite his star status, have much incandescence; he’s glamorous without being terribly interesting either as luminary or as actor. Soderbergh tries to milk Pitt for everything he’s worth, and he does the same with Damon, another actor who probably, in a fairer world, would be glossing up movies in featured cameos, as he does here, rather than trying to carry the show. These actors may be stars, but they don’t necessarily have star presence, a much more indefinable and yet unmistakable quality. It’s what Cheadle, as a Cockney munitions expert, has more of than almost any other performer of his generation, and since he can also act with the best of them, his relegation in this movie (as in so many of his others) to supporting status makes for a real drop in wattage. Bernie Mac, as a crooked card dealer, is another one who makes you long for more because there’s so little of him in the movie to begin with. When he feigns being racially insulted during a police grilling, complaining that they might as well call blackjack “whitejack,” he’s so explosively comic that he exposes as tepid most of the buddy-buddy badinage that passes for wit in this film.

Ocean’s Eleven may be a high-stakes Vegas caper movie, but it could just as easily be taking place in cloud-cuckoo land – which is why Elliott Gould, as a daffy kingpin, and Carl Reiner, as a doddering con man back for the big score, fit so well into the fabric. Both are blissfully harmless. There are virtually no guns in the movie, no mouth-breathing Mafia, no killings; even the one big bruising turns out to be a sham. All this is intentional, of course: Soderbergh doesn’t want any bloodstains on his magic carpet. He’s got the right attitude; gore would be as out of place here as it would be in a frothy musical (which is what, in spirit, Ocean’s Eleven pretty much is, minus the musical numbers). Soderbergh won an Oscar last year for the overwrought Traffic, in the same year he was nominated for Erin Brockovich, but his greatest talent, I think, is for something a lot less socially concerned: for example, the jazzy, rum-flavored Out of Sight, with Clooney and Jennifer Lopez muscling through the shadows and making do-me eyes at each other. At its best, Ocean’s Eleven is blessedly inconsequential in that same way – a showy exercise in stylishness. But it’s also a rather chilly stylishness. Soderbergh takes literally the notion that in the casinos, you are always being watched; his camera is like a surveillance device homing in on everybody and everything from every angle. In a sense, the pyrotechnics upstage the stars. The romance in this movie is ultimately not about the performers but about the ways in which the camera picks them up. It’s a movie in love with surfaces, mirrors, reflections. When we see the glittering fountains in front of the casinos leap and froth as if in celebration of the heist, it carries as much emotional charge as anything the actors do. There’s nothing lasting, even as entertainment, about Ocean’s Eleven, which seems designed to vanish as you’re watching it. But it can, at times, be forgettable in a fun way, especially when its funniest performers are caught in Soderbergh’s spinning crosshairs.

The Iranian director Majid Majidi, who made The Color of Paradise, has a marvelous eye for composition, yet the suffering in his films, and there’s plenty of it, never seems picturesque. His new film, Baran, is about Lateef (Hossein Abedini), an Iranian laborer on a construction site who develops an unspoken ardor for Baran (Zahra Bahrami), an illegal Afghan immigrant trying to pass as a boy in order to support her family. It’s an elliptical tragedy in which the fate of its characters takes on a larger significance while never losing its intimacy. When the girl turns away from Iran and goes behind her burka, we are watching not just the donning of a garment but the closing-down of a life.

Ocean’s Eleven
Directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring George Clooney, Julia Roberts, etc.
Directed by Majid Majidi.

The 21 Club