December 14, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen (12/14/07)

Lettergrade: F

I've seen all three Ocean's movies now, but I honestly haven't gotten much out of any of them. They're heist movies, I guess, but more than that they seem to be excuses for the lead actors, many of whom are friends in real life, to hang out on lavish locations, wear silly costumes, and collect some nice Warner Bros paychecks. I'm sorry if that sounds cynical, but as the movies never seem to have any over-reaching themes, and the characters are not given much personality or complexity, I have to assume that the cast keeps coming back because the work conditions are pleasurable, if nothing else. Having had a couple shitty jobs lately myself, my hats off to them for finding a fun work environment and steady income, but I must say I sorta wish they were interested in telling a good story or two while they were at it.

The movies have had increasingly convoluted plots, and director Steven Soderbergh doesn't seem especially interested in letting Joe Audience know what the fuck is happening in any of them. It's a curious approach, but I guess his mission was accomplished: I went through most of Thirteen not understanding what the guys are trying to do or how they're trying to do it. There are many scenes where one of Ocean's gang is dealing with some elaborate Star Wars-like piece of equipment or interacting in strange ways with other mysterious characters that you don't know anything about and for objectives that remain largely unclear. I guess the interesting part is supposed to be listening to the groovy music while the celebrity cast unpacks shit and talks vaguely about plans that won't be unveiled until the movie's climax. During those lengthy and plentiful scenes, with no discernible plot to contemplate, I usually found myself wondering if there was anything I needed to unpack in the other room myself, but that's neither here nor there.

In this one, the guys all convene in Las Vegas after Elliot Gould, a charter member of the previous movies' Ocean's gang, has a heart attack and is rendered in a "sort of" catatonic state. Flashbacks quickly reveal that he got this way because he unwisely entered into a business partnership to open a new casino on the strip with Al Pacino, only to be double-crossed and squeezed out. Gould even says that Pacino has done this to every other business partner he's ever had, but nevertheless he was stupid enough to take no precautions whatsoever. This supreme act of gullibility and astonishing idiocy on Gould's part is too much for George Clooney and Brad Pitt, and they decide to help Gould enact revenge by sabotaging Pacino's opening night.

From then on out... aw fuck, it doesn't really matter. I think there's a scene in all three movies where the guys are confronted with some elaborate obstacle, and then an expert in a specialized area of criminal activity grimly says, "Forget it: It can't be done!" This is followed, of course, by a scene where the guys find a way to easily do it anyway, courtesy of some crazy long-shot idea that someone on the team has come up with. That's pretty much all there is to know about the plot, and if that sounds like thoughtful, engaging filmmaking to you, by all means please enjoy.

While we're talking about curious patterns, there are two things about this movie that I want to mention: One is that the film has a real hard-on for The Godfather. I mean, I love that movie as much as anyone, and it _is_ cool that Pacino, The Godfather III's Andy Garcia, and Scott Caan (son of the original movie's James Caan) are part of the cast, but I don't understand why so much dialogue came directly from that film and what all the references were about. The other thing I want to make note of is that all the characters seem to wear a lot of crazy costumes in this one. I cannot remember if Eleven and Twelve were like this, but in this one it feels like every few minutes there's a scene where Don Cheadle impersonates a dare-devil motorcyclist or Clooney comes out wearing a crazy Italian mustache or Matt Damon sports a shamefully unconvincing prosthetic nose. It could just be the filmmakers' loving tribute to the Chevy Chase classic Fletch, but it still seemed cartoonishly excessive and virtually pointless.

Ultimately, however, Ocean's Thirteen, like its predecessors, has bigger problems that mostly stem from the fact that there's very little tension in any of the proceedings. In all three films there's a point where the film slyly lets you know, "Don't worry: Clooney and Pitt had it all figured out well in advance and took care of everything!" Um... where's the fucking drama in that? I kinda thought that heist movies are generally able to get some good milage out of unexpected things going wrong. The Mission: Impossible movies, for example, feature a lot of elaborate heists, and they manage to keep it all fresh and exciting. I guess you can walk away from the entries in the Ocean's series marveling at what fine administrators Clooney and Pitt are, but the filmmakers could benefit from going for something with a little more pizzaz and showmanship. Will Danny Ocean win? He always does. He seems to have no doubt that he will, and there is no doubt on the part of anyone else in the movie either.

The original Ocean's 11, the one made in 1960 starring Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack, wasn't that good a movie, and it was a bit curious to me that anyone would choose to remake it in the first place. Soderbergh had just come off dual Best Director nominations the previous year for Erin Brockovich and Traffic (the latter of which he won), and it seemed like a heist movie made by a filmmaker of his caliber would be something worth seeing. I actually saw his Ocean's remake twice, thinking that there must have been some other layer there that I had missed the first time. Ultimately, I think I realized that it was a remake inasmuch as a bunch of celebrities had a great time making a fairly shallow movie about knocking over a Vegas casino, and not much more. There could be something more interesting and post-modern buried in these films, but it clearly takes a viewer more sophisticated (and devoted) than myself to spot it.

(seen on DVD)

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