Cool with a wink and a smile: George Clooney and his titular character Danny Ocean? Brad Pitt as Dusty Ryan, Ocean’s buddy and partner in crime? Yes. But let’s rewind 41 years to swinging 1960. Now you could be talking about the Rat Pack and what may have been a large part of their intoxicating (and frequently intoxicated) charm.
For those whose memory might not stretch back that far, the leader of the pack was Frank Sinatra. Dean Martin (his off- and on-screen persona as pickled as the olive floating in his seemingly bottomless martini — and just as cool) joined him. Sammy Davis Jr. came in (perhaps through the kitchen door) and this trio became the core of the Rat Pack.
Eventually Frankie goes to Vegas and he and the boys work the stages of the strip. They start shooting the first of four Rat Pack movies, Ocean’s Eleven (followed by Sergeants 3, 4 for Texas and Robin and the 7 Hoods). Frankie plays Danny Ocean, a World War II vet. Deano and Sammy play two of his 10 army buddies who team together to pull a little heist: six casinos in one night. By day, they act out robbing the same venues they perform in at night.
This is the kind of irony screenwriter Ted Griffin (Best Laid Plans) and Oscar award-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) have used to build a new Ocean’s Eleven from the ground up. Like the new VW Beetle, the only thing it shares in common with the original is a name and an essential form, so it’s often fruitless to try to play match-the-star. Pitt’s Ryan is Ocean’s right-hand man, but it wouldn’t be accurate to call his the “Dean Martin” role; their characters don’t even share the same name. Ryan’s day job is training Hollywood actors to play poker as research for their parts in an upcoming movie. The inside joke is that Matt Damon (All the Pretty Horses), who plays one of the team’s con artists, Linus Caldwell, probably went through the same kind of instruction with fellow actor Edward Norton for their roles in the poker flick Rounders (1998).
Soderbergh’s direction complements the pretzel logic of Griffin’s plot. Ryan’s “classroom” has only one window. It offers the view of an undulating go-go dancer. After Ocean and Ryan perform a high-rolling poker hand at the expense of Ryan’s students (literally), the two friends surface for lunch from behind the stage of a go-go bar. As in the films of writer-director David Mamet (Heist), all the world’s a stage (or a backstage) of some kind of con, peopled with characters playing roles within roles.
Griffin isn’t quite a Mamet. His characters lack that kind of deep (and sometimes problematic) complexity and successfully witty language. But Soderbergh draws the most out of the plot’s love triangle between Ocean, his estranged wife Tess (Julia Roberts, America's Sweethearts) and casino magnate Harry Benedict (Andy Garcia playing his oiliest reptile since Hoodlum’s Lucky Luciano).
Soderbergh knows the angles of desire. He’s explored them in his phenomenal breakout feature sex, lies and videotape (1989) and in his film-noir exercise Underneath (1995). He’s also directed some of Clooney’s and Roberts’ best performances (Clooney in Out of Sight and Roberts in the role that won her the Best Actress Oscar, Erin Brockovich). Unfortunately, the thread of their love story rarely comes to the surface as Griffin weaves his gadgety heist procedural, setting up the long and short of Ocean’s grand con. Don’t look for any sultry scenes between Clooney and Roberts. This is a family show that stays safely within its PG-13 boundaries. The Oceans never get to make waves like Clooney and Jennifer Lopez do in Out of Sight.
Ultimately, the team of specialists Ocean assembles executes a postmodern parody of the Rat Pack’s movie — and of Mission: Impossible. Soderbergh even makes his visuals ironic, shooting this fabulously Hollywood picture with the same faux cinema-vérité technique he used so effectively in Traffic. It makes Ocean’s Eleven doubly ironic as a fake documentary of Ocean and company’s big lies.
With its excellently performed, quirky (if shallow) characters, clever laughs and even suspense, Ocean’s Eleven may not be a perfect 10, but it doesn’t fall too far short.
Visit the official Ocean's 11 Web site at oceans11.warnerbros.com.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at firstname.lastname@example.org.