This new Ocean's Eleven certainly had the potential to flatten its predecessor on every imaginable level. The director is Steven Soderbergh, coming off a banner year in which he helmed both Erin Brockovich and Traffic (winning the Best Director Oscar for the latter). The cast is primarily packed with real actors, cutting down on the high volume of surface celebrities who marched through the 1960 version (think Peter Lawford, for starters). And in this era in which crime flicks are practically required to feature plot twist upon plot twist upon plot twist, it was a safe bet that this souped-up remake would offer a lot more than just one solitary surprise at the fade-out.
So the good news is that the new Ocean's Eleven is indeed better than the original; the bad news is that it achieves its superiority by the thinnest of margins. In fact, this is one of 2001's biggest disappointments -- rarely has so much genuine talent been placed at the service of something so inconsequential.
Soderbergh's take on the tale retains the basic outline but jettisons most of the individual details. Thus, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is no longer a former WWII paratrooper but rather a career criminal who, as the film opens, is being released from the clink after a successful parole hearing. Immediately, he decides to mastermind his most elaborate scheme yet: With the help of a high- powered team of criminals, he will simultaneously rip off three Vegas casinos, all of which keep their loot in the same underground vault.
Danny has a personal reason for choosing these particular casinos: They all belong to Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), a heartless businessman who's presently dating Danny's ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts, who's amusingly billed in the credits with the line, "And Introducing Julia Roberts As Tess"). Danny hopes to outfox the villain and win back the girl, but first, he has to assemble his crack team. He tracks down his friend Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) to serve as his right-hand man, and he secures financing for his operation from Vegas millionaire Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould). From there, he goes on to recruit eight more con men, bringing the total to 11.
Juggling so many central characters in a motion picture is always a daunting task, but not an impossible one: Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and several of Robert Altman's more celebrated films were masterful in making even the most fleeting characters come alive on screen. But Soderbergh and screenwriter Ted Griffin are so busy trying to spread the wealth that they end up shortchanging practically every character, and it's up to each individual actor to carve out a unique characterization based on their own intuitions regarding their respective roles. Most, sad to say, fail miserably.
While picking up her Oscar for Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts gushed over Soderbergh by stating, "I'd read the phonebook if he asked me to." I wish he had, since listening to her sludge through the Yellow Pages couldn't possibly be any duller than watching her tackle the non-role of Tess. I expect less charitable reviewers will describe her performance as terrible, but she isn't bad as much as her part is an insult, a wretchedly written role that posits Tess as nothing more than a trophy gal for Danny and Terry. What's more, the part is so anemic, this popular actress never comes close to having an opportunity to display the brashness or sunny personality that have defined her career -- as a matter of fact, she had more chemistry with the dead frog she bags in Erin Brockovich than she does here with either Clooney or Garcia.
Roberts may bring up the movie's rear, but she's hardly alone back there in the caboose. For the umpteenth time in his relatively brief movie career, George Clooney figures he needs to do nothing more than coast by on his laidback style of movie star charisma -- it's a downright dull performance. As the group's resident pickpocket, Matt Damon, electrifying when the role is right, practically seems shoehorned into the proceedings; next to Roberts, he's the A-list Actor Least Likely To Succeed in this enterprise. And Don Cheadle, a Soderbergh regular and one of today's most exciting performers, struggles with a forced Cockney accent and too little screen time as the team's demolition expert.
Other actors fare better. Taking top honors is Brad Pitt: His role doesn't look like much on paper, but through sheer will and personality, as well as the sound application of some offbeat character tics, he's the one who constantly commands our attention. Elliot Gould has some fun in the caricatured role of a Jewish moneybags, while Bernie Mac brings his potent brand of stand-up comedy to his role as card dealer Frank Catton, the job's inside man. Trivia buffs, meanwhile, will enjoy the fleeting cameos by Angie Dickinson and Henry Silva, who had supporting roles in the 1960 original.
Because much of the film jumps from one incident to the next with little feel for continuity or cohesiveness, some individual set-pieces are able to proudly stand on their own. There's an amusing early scene in which Pitt's character is seen teaching poker to pampered Hollywood stars, while a later incident finds Mac pretending to express anger at perceived prejudices within the casino industry ("They oughta call the game whitejack!" he sputters).
Ocean's Eleven maintains the appropriate swagger and air of cool collectedness, but it's hard to be impressed with its suavity as it bungles its own caper trail. The neat finale of the '60 model has been scrapped, only to be replaced with the sort of obvious double-dealings that failed to fool us when we saw them earlier this year in The Score and Heist. Soberbergh has stated that Ocean's Eleven was his "opportunity to try and make a movie that has no desire except to give [audiences] pleasure from beginning to end." That's a lovely sentiment, but when it's obvious that the actors in the movie are having more fun making this thing than we are while watching it, you know something's not kosher. In the case of Ocean's Eleven, the house wins.