With a good film like "The Score" and a great one like "Heist" already clogging the arteries of filmgoers this year with their highly-caloric tales of stealing, an after-dinner mint of joy comes in the form of Steven Soderbergh's remake of the Rat Pack pseudo-classic "Ocean's Eleven" (IMDb listing).
Danny Ocean (George Clooney) has just been released from jail after serving a four-year term. He quickly revisits his old haunts (Atlantic City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas) to assemble a team of 10 professional thieves and scoundrels (Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Carl Reiner, Bernie Mac, Elliot Gould, Don Cheadle, Eddie Jemison, Scott Caan, Casey Affleck and Chinese acrobat Shaobo Qin) to attempt the unthinkable: Rob three Las Vegas casinos for $163 million during "fight night" at the Bellagio super-casino, run by the imperialistic Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). What the team doesn't know is that Danny secretly harbors hope for a chance to win back the heart of his ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts), who has long since moved on from Danny, and is now in a colorless relationship with Terry.
After spending the last two years winning accolades and trophies for his more high-minded work ("Erin Brockovich," "Traffic"), director Steven Soderbergh takes a much needed break from world-changing cinema with the relaxed and sensational "Ocean's Eleven." Though Soderbergh has always been a great filmmaker with original cinematic ideas at his beck and call, I can't say I've been this excited over one of his films in some time. 1998's "Out Of Sight" notwithstanding, "Eleven" reminds the audience that Soderbergh is capable of crafting entertainment, fulfilling in both a popcorn and stylistic way. "Ocean's Eleven" moves lightning quick, with a truck load of caustic zingers provided by screenwriter Ted Griffin ("Ravenous") and a cast that one can only do a spit-take over. Any director in the world would have a hard time screwing this material up, but Soderbergh gives the picture a classy sheen. Like when a math genius decides to work at Target, you understand this movie isn't Soderbergh's heart on display, but is a way for the director to try something a little more mainstream.
Soderbergh, once again acting as his own cinematographer, also makes an intelligent decision to tuck away his tendencies for grainy, colorless photography. "Ocean's Eleven" looks gorgeous, and emphasizes the high budget with its elegant capture of Las Vegas. Soderbergh might be bored filling his shots with exploding color and widescreen sheen, but he should rest in the knowledge this is one of the best photographed films of the year.
From the opening shots, the differences between the two versions of "Ocean's Eleven" are readily apparent. Long gone is the Rat Pack silliness and in-jokey vibe. Soderbergh's "Eleven" plays more as a solid heist picture. It's interested in how the characters get away with it than how much they enjoy getting away with it. It's futile to compare the two versions, as one is a time capsule of an outdated era dedicated to old-school Vegas, decadence, and filmmaking, while the other is a rousing, star-laden attempt to wrestle away your holiday moviegoing bucks. Neither film is rocket science, but the 2001 remake crackles with expert timing.
With a cast this ace, it comes as no surprise that watching them work is a treat. Soderbergh and Clooney have gathered a cast of peculiar, yet aptly hired entities to bring to life this screwball bunch of professional looters. While Clooney and Brad Pitt are effortless in secreting coolness as they slink across the gaming floor, the real champs of the acting department are Matt Damon as an impetuous crook, Bernie Mac as an undercover dealer (who also provides the comedic highlights of the film), Elliot Gould as the financial backer of the heist, and Scott Caan and Casey Affleck as bumbling brothers who act as kind of production assistants for the score. Andy Garcia is woefully underutilized as the heavy of the film, but his work is solid and it's worthy just to see him onscreen again. The Julia Roberts performance amounts to cameo-size screen time. A little misleading from the marketing, I know, but also a relief to those who just want to hang out in the boys' club for two hours.
The one problem I have with "Eleven" is the relationship between Andy Garcia's Terry and Julia Roberts' Tess. Their connection is the justification for the events in the film, so their affair should be handled with great importance. Yet, Soderbergh doesn't really find the time to sell the relationship. This leaves the picture with a sizable gap in the storytelling, as Danny's unreasonable jealousy is the catalyst for the robbery. Without the time spent to understand why Tess would choose Terry over Danny, the film is hurt subtly by the breach in the narrative. I enjoyed all the acting fireworks, the stealing and the sleekness of the production, but without this crucial element to the story, "Ocean's Eleven" just barely misses classic status.
Filmfodder Grade: A-