This One Goes To 11

Steven Soderbergh Pumps Up the Volume of Stars in 'Ocean's Eleven'

Like the Rat Pack original, Steven Soderbergh's new Ocean's Eleven deals with celebrity culture. The 1960 Ocean's 11 (screening this weekend at Bijou Films on the U of M campus) was a minor heist movie overwhelmed by its cast: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Angie Dickinson. Its biggest joke is that Danny Ocean (Sinatra) and his wisecracking team of WWII paratroopers-turned-casino robbers don't end up with the big payoff. (But of course they do. As the humbled crew finally stumbles along the Las Vegas strip, a lit-up casino sign behind them lists its performing stars: Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, etc.) Soderbergh's remake is loaded with its own cast of heavyweights: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon. But the movie often manages to be more than a celebrity vehicle--maybe because its take on stardom is a little more complicated than "smash and grab."

Or maybe it's just that its heist is more complicated. In the original, Ocean and his buddy Lawford--er, Jimmy Foster--spend the first hour traveling the country collecting a crew for a major Las Vegas robbery. One guy has a stripper wife, and another is an unhappily divorced ex-con missing his kid and dying of something. Ocean's former wife wants him to settle down; his former mistress vows to bring him down. Foster needs to cut loose from his sugar mommy. The other six men don't have backstories: Their faces, famous or not, are their characters. Ocean gathers them at the home of his backer (a "comically" stereotypical Greek with money) and explains the plan. Then they follow the plan, five times, at five different casinos. By the last one, the viewer could do the job for them, in her sleep (because by now she is sleeping).

Soderbergh's screenwriter Ted Griffin has narrowed the robbers' target to one Las Vegas vault, which conveniently holds the cash for three casinos, all owned by a nasty operator named Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia, who has been vaguely Asianized--as if efficient, ruthless, and powerful means foreign money). The first hour again follows Ocean (Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (hereafter known as Brad Pitt) as they scour the country, pulling their crew together. But when the assembled group receives its briefing, the viewer only hears an extensive description of the job's difficulty (the vault is underground, accessible only by elevator, etc.). From then on, the audience is kept on a "need to know" basis. Just when the plan comes clear, there's an exhilarating rewind (shades of Pitt's Snatch), and perception shifts 180 degrees. What is seen isn't necessarily real.

That goes for the characters as well. Brad doesn't just play Brad, as Dean played Dean: Brad's character interacts with the Pitt persona. Ocean finds his old crime partner in Hollywood--bored, teaching teen heartthrobs (real ones like Topher and Josh) how to play (their) cards right (in the biz). Later, Pitt walks unnoticed away from a crowd of fans screaming around Topher. There's a little smirk on his face. Meanwhile, pickpocket Damon acts the callow, inexperienced boy, and does so perfectly, professionally. Don Cheadle slips into a Cockney accent to distance this character from his Sammy Davis Jr. in HBO's The Rat Pack; but, hey, he is filling Sammy D's shoes. More teasingly, his Basher Tarr is an explosives expert--which makes sense, given Cheadle's tendency to blow out other, less intense costars.

Casey Affleck and Scott Caan squabble as a sibling driver duo: Is it coincidence that they're each chasing a relative's greater success? Still lesser-known Eddie Jemison contributes a sweating, nervous surveillance expert, a mocking portrait of what you'd expect from someone suddenly playing with the big boys. Infamous bachelor and gamesman Clooney here chooses love over money. Julia Roberts moonlights (ha!) as the girl everyone wants to own ($20 million a movie--though this one she did for love).

Soderbergh fills Benedict's casino with surveillance cameras: The characters move across monitor screens in disguise, tricking the viewer--like actors manipulating their public personas to keep themselves bankable. The casino is another name for Hollywood, a place where the spin of fate creates a blockbuster one day and a Heaven's Gate the next. Here, screens and windows and shiny surfaces abound. At one point the plot turns on some creatively fashioned videotape. Later, Cheadle watches a building's demolition on television, while the actual building collapses outside his window. Media images create reality; they're more real than reality. Near the end, most of the characters line up and watch a towering, well-lighted fountain, as if they're reviewing their own actions in the light playing on a wide, white screen. (Or is that a triumphant group ejaculation?)

In a media-saturated country, everyone is watching and watched--including the viewer. Will you pony up the cash to play? In a way, Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven seems the savviest satire of Hollywood since The Player. Then again, I may be mistaking mere reflection for parody. If the safest Hollywood attractions are those designed for straight white males, then this is Soderbergh's fattest, cushiest ride. Women aren't players here. The grasping sluts and demanding matrons of the original film may have looked ugly, but they had enough power to doom Danny Ocean's heist. (The movie's second-funniest joke: It didn't matter. See first-funniest joke.) Here, the overt misogyny of the first film has gone underground: With the exception of Ocean, no man has a female connection. Roberts's Tess is the only woman with more than two lines, and she's a puppet strung between two strong men. Female power isn't simply mocked; it has been erased.

The original's racism gets a slightly different twist. In 1960, a Chinese houseboy giggled, and Sammy D picked through the garbage. Today, Bernie Mac plays the race card for bucks and yuks. And Pitt and Clooney actually sit back and chuckle about the difficulty of telling one "little Chinese guy" from another (Jackie Chan or Jet Li--who cares?). But hey--it's okay. This little Chinese guy (acrobat Shaobo Qin) is in on the joke: He throws them the finger. Yes, it's race humor circa 2001: Include a critique of your racism, however insincere, and you can get away with anything. However masked, the media game is still about (protecting) power.

But I was talking about reflective surfaces. Perhaps these horrors are part of Soderbergh's satire. In a holdover from the first movie, the director sits Pitt down before a pair of erotic dancers. But the dancers are behind glass--mirroring glass. The camera focuses back on Pitt's face, as he watches almost sheepishly. He doesn't look away. Neither do I.

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