Progenitors: Ocean’s Eleven

oceans_eleven_2001_posterCompared to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for The Nice Guys”, “Ocean’s Eleven for Money Monster” isn’t as clean a comparison. But I really like Soderbergh’s collaboration with George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and mindless excess, and clearly Clooney and Roberts enjoyed themselves too; Money Monster reteams them and brings a different kind of capital along for the ride.

First, a word (or 300) about Ocean’s Twelve, a consciously, elaborately superficial near-masterpiece of self-reflexively specious blockbuster filmmaking that is all but eager to endorse its own glaring incapability to follow-through with its narrative, resulting in a gloriously aggressive exercise in screwing with the audience and rigorously avoiding its own questions. Turning plotless artifice into glowing conviviality, Soderbergh’s semi-conscious sequel to his blockbuster escapade sacrifices nearly any credibility or forward-thrust for an alternate-reality vision of narrative focused on relentlessly pleasing itself with its own obliviousness and self-interested absurdity. It reworks the heist film to function as both an anti-heist film and as a commentary on cinema as an exercise in devious subterfuge.

Indulging in its star-gazing habits to the point of intoxication, Twelve wrings itself dry teasing the audience about how it operates less as film and more as masturbatory actor-porn in the vein of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, only more willing to expend its energy chilling with its stars rather than acknowledging its plot. It pumps up the cartoonish glitz and infatuated flesh-gazing “let’s spend another minute with the boys” insouciance while directly shattering the disconnect between actor and character. In turn, it visualizes a world where movie stars have developed their own pseudo-language (“Halloween and Thanksgiving will fall on the same day”) that even a star as prodigious as Matt Damon can’t understand.

At one point in the sequel, Brad Pitt’s fixer-man Rusty reclusively intones “It’s not in my nature to be mysterious, but I can’t talk about it, and I can’t talk about why”. It’s a smirking nonsense phrase that might as well encapsulate the entire film’s ethos as the only work in the modern glut of post-Sting playthings to actually transform screwing with the audience along narrative/structural lines into genuinely bullshitting them with a confidence trick that probes fundamental narrative principles of Aristotelean time.

I mention all this because Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh’s first take-the-world-by-storm blockbuster exercise, sneaks in nearly all of what Twelve was secretly selling, albeit not as astringently nor as forcefully. Which makes it a less fascinating film, but certainly a better, more appealing one by any conventional standard, surreptitiously smuggling Soderbergh’s pocket interests into a more cohesive, considerate package. It’s not as viciously experimental in its “arbitrariness as aesthetic” lexicon as Twelve, nor as crisply streamlined and sleek as Thirteen, but it’s the most balanced, the most pleasantly amused with the in-between state between avant-garde and pop-art.

Functioning more-or-less as an ode to laconic camaraderie, Soderbergh’s character-focused direction and Ted Griffin’s empathetic screenplay refute the antiseptic, circumscribed machinations of most heist films (see Now You See Me for a most cringe-inducing exercise in this sort of narrative candy rush). Instead of acquainting us with torrid plot mechanics, Ocean’s Eleven remains fiendishly tight while also indulging in a more slackened midnight hang-out vibe. The focus is on the resting moments of reaction rather than the chaos of a herky-jerky plot. Parsimonious grace notes throughout the centerpiece heist, like Soderbergh’s visual refrains to the returning team members, a cheering squad of ever-enlarging size, cut through the forward momentum of the action without diminishing the purity of the suspense.

Within, a cadre of performances both center and unhinge the film, from George Clooney (as master thief Daniel Ocean) and Brad Pitt (as his right-hand-man Rusty) and their easy-going one-ups-man-ship that carries years of history under their breath, to Bernie Mac’s perilously diabolical turn as a snake who bleeds relaxation into fright without breaking a sweat, to Elliot Gould’s foppish, endlessly amused turn as the team’s benefactor, to Don Cheadle’s intentionally awful British slang that prefigures the absurdist irregularity of team/movie-star discourse so thick-on-the-ground in Twelve. Forming the dramatic undergrowth of the film, Julia Roberts maximizes her ostensibly trifling screen time as Ocean’s ex-wife, now dating conniving, Machiavellian casino overlord Terry Benedict (a sly, venomous Andy Garcia sliding into the de-stressed tempo of the film with villainous gusto).

The subtle undercurrent of subterranean post-relationship trauma at the heart of Ocean’s Eleven (Ocean’s heist is clearly as much about making amends with his ex-wife) is a nice buttress to the film’s weight, and a point in favor of the film as something more than an excuse for movie stars to have a good time (something never achieved by the original 1960 feature, a pointless film that bears every ounce of its stars’ over-churned self-contentedness, without the wily, nefarious undercurrent of self-flagellation present in Ocean’s Twelve).

That said, the real hero of the film is Soderbergh, liquefying his color-coded cinematography from Traffic and turning the film into a refracted portal of malleable moods visualized in violent and capricious reds, gaudy and simmering yellows, and frostbitten and icy blues that emotionally, viscerally catalyze a Vegas-style sensual overload. The film’s ever-changing cinematography, courtesy of Soderbergh under his usual alias, encapsulates both the buoyancy and emotional slippage of Vegas, where one’s fortunes can change on a dime and on a moment’s notice.

So even if Eleven lacks the crazed, estranged-from-common-sense sensibility of Ocean’s Twelve, it’s a more well-rounded cinematic treatise on entertainment for the same reason. It lacks the outré distaste for anything resembling blockbuster structure that turns Twelve into a lone-wolf exercise in harebrained improvisational anti-climax and even anti-conflict. But as a singular slice of cinematic shenanigans and calm, cool, collected showmanship, Eleven is pretty sublime.

Score: 9/10

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