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#9: Ocean's Eleven
(USA, 2001; dir. Steven Soderbergh; scr. Ted Griffin; cin. "Peter Andrews"; with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Julia Roberts, Carl Reiner, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, Eddie Jemison, Bernie Mac, Shaobo Qin)
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"Mr. Ocean, what do you think you would do if released?" Substitute Mr. Soderbergh at the start of that opening line and the answer is Ocean's Eleven itself, a merry siesta after three years and four feats of artistic rejuvenation. This Vegas caper is also the culmination of all the prowess and finesse Soderbergh honed in those projects, and a suave act of global larceny, pouring its hefty windfall into the pockets of films and projects that needed not just the cash but the creative liberty of reduced financial pressure. The fictional and actual stunts that Ocean's Eleven pulled off align to a delicious degree, though it's not clear anyone outside the text was robbed. Audiences seemed more than willing to fork over our dough: I went on the first Friday night, and again on Saturday, and I didn't stop there. Warner Brothers may not have expected the global phenomenon the Ocean's trilogy became but nobody forced their $85 million gamble, and the consecutive successes of Erin Brockovich and Traffic surely afforded some confidence. In general, if Ocean's-related profits hadn't underwritten Solaris and Far from Heaven and Michael Clayton and Syriana and Keane and K Street and Che, plus other movies I like less but endorse as valiant attempts, then money wouldn't seem like the right way to conceptualize the hijack. It's a bit rich, as it were, to get excited about multimillionaires reaping further millions and construing the event as a trickle-down victory for the little guy, even if Todd Haynes and Lodge Kerrigan and perennial insider-outsider Soderbergh have warrant to think of it that way. The real glory of Ocean's Eleven concerns something smuggled in rather than swiped out, and that something is not money but style. The point is not that Danny Ocean and crew make off with Terry Benedict's $160 million despite lots of reasons to fail, or that Soderbergh and Clooney's Section Eight production company confiscated an even larger haul from the U.S. alone, based on a dubious-sounding remake of a half-remembered property. It's that both heists were, as they say now, so perfectly on fleek at a time when Hollywood had all but given up the ghost of glamour.

Blockbuster attendance was already starting to feel like a grind by 2001, even if the total conversion of multiplex bookings to franchise seriality and superhero (mis)adventure was not yet complete. Big movies were not much fun to watch. Gladiator, the epic that pipped Soderbergh's famous two-fer for the Best Picture Oscar in 2000, falls well above the aesthetic median for Y2K-era tentpoles, and even that film sports a chunky narrative and garish digital assistance. Otherwise, save for some elegant setpieces in What Lies Beneath, the top ten box-office grossers of 2000 show a real lack of formal suavity. As for 1999, even a Sixth Sense skeptic and Matrix hater like myself has to concede the sleek surface and smooth moves of both films, but can we admit the joyless, uninspiring assembly of most of their peers at the box office that year or the year before? Folks were already writing about the decline of the bankable movie star by 2001, but what about the strandedness of those stars, lucky and comely enough to headline mass-market pageants but, having scratched the gold-leaf on their good fortune, finding ersatz, interchangeable "opportunities"? What lies beneath, indeed. All that investment, all that promotion, and then movie after movie, even those that recouped, are as bogus as a poker hand of all reds. I know, I know: who will weep for these? But there's a reason why Matt Damon's low-rent thefts on rattling trains, Brad Pitt's calorie-swilling ennui, and Bernie Mac's uniformed indenture on a casino floor are all subtly poignant, while also comically expository. The same is true for Carl Reiner, under-employed, wiling away hours at the racetrack, and for Julia Roberts, whose Oscar has bought her a gilded cage where she can have everything but do little. Watching her and Pitt try to hot-wire as grubby a vehicle as The Mexican into an insouciant star vehicle nine months before Ocean's opened was about a dire a spectacle as one could conceive of Hollywood royalty all spruced up with nowhere to go. Too many movies felt like flatbed trucks without the floats. And if the stars felt this way, imagine how the directors, editors, cinematographers, writers, designers, and other artists must have felt. And screw everyone else: think how I felt.

Ocean's Eleven Jerry Maguires the shit out of this moribund situation, showing higher-end taste and technique than Jerry (or Jerry) ever did but connecting just as strongly with the popular solar plexus. Soderbergh abandons his post among the studio cubicles only to land even higher than where he started, with a dozen Dorothy Boyds joining him on the elevator ride to unimagined levels of elegance. Again, style is the winning weapon. In that sense, Pitt's wide-lapel shirts in Pantone shades, Clooney's preternatural embodiment of cologned and tailored nattiness, and Andy Garcia's sleek and sinister ensembles of brocaded tycoonery are not gratuitous to what Ocean's is offering. They are embedded in its message: that movie stars can and should look this good, particularly when rising to the rare occasion of a film that is comparably debonair. Ocean's Eleven, however bro-y in some of its appeal, is grace personified, engineered like a BMW, buffed to a shine without seeming unapproachable, scripted and cross-cut like Astaire and Rogers gliding around a floor. Even better, this elegance is not an invitation to ogle passively; the same movie that dazzles you with its looks and textures encourages you to participate, to connect dots, to get up and dance with it. Quick inserts and ambiguously motivated, Altmanesque zooms and pans are all meticulously strategized. They introduce props, privilege voices, or showcase habits of framing that all recur crucially as later hijinks unfold. Has any movie, especially in my lifetime, given a dozen characters as many indelible introductions, each unlike the other? Has any negotiated a sailor's knot of story convolutions with such a sweatless brow, and with such a steady current of laughs, verbal and visual? "That's the sexiest thing I've ever seen," says Carl Reiner's Saul, watching each piece of this high-risk nick click into place. I couldn't agree more, but it's the movie, lean and louche, gymnastic and indolent at the same time, that inspires this thought even more than the parade of beauties following its orders and donning its killer threads.

Given the mise-en-scène's unparalleled panache and the immaculate sangfroid of sound, montage, and performance (except when Elliott Gould's vulgarity or Casey Affleck and Scott Caan's brattiness are enlisted toward higher effect), I didn't catch the spooked or sour notes in Ocean's Eleven right off the bat. Now they only enrich the experience, slipping superfine layers of panic or parody beneath the burnished exterior. Soderbergh loves his stars and flatters them amply but can still bring them up short. Everyone frets if Matt Damon can really act. Julia Roberts dons heels and Chanel-style suits but even Soderbergh can't or won't cloak that clodhopping gait. Brad Pitt, fresh off Spy Game and The Mexican, needs to lay off the junk food if he's going to last, or he'll wind up in some backroom purgatory, teaching card tricks to Hollywood fetuses. These jokes have a fond edge; the stars are mildly roasted even as they're lifted toward the firmament. Elsewhere, notes of bitterness, chill, or melancholy are swift but more straightforward: in Roberts and Clooney's restaurant scenes, say, where she's so bilious and he gets testy. Clooney's framing against Reiner's profile in the tailoring scene reminds us that looks, unlike diamonds, aren't forever. Reiner himself seems so plausibly on his last legs that my breath still catches when "Lyman Zerga" topples over from cardiac arrest. But this geezer, like the forty-year-old story Soderbergh and Ted Griffin have adapted with such pizzazz, has plenty of unexploited tricks up his sleeve. I still have no idea how Reiner missed the Jack Palance/Alan Arkin berth in a notably weak Supporting Actor field that year at the Oscars.

In fact, Ocean's Eleven was entirely blanked by the Academy, even as it mirrored the exquisite ensemble work of Gosford Park; the visual splendor of Moulin Rouge!, albeit in a subtler key; and the sheer, stylish, popcorn-munching excitement of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. It annoys me how often filmmakers don't appreciate consummate commercial product, even when audiences catch on. Then again, the Ocean's crew is one amply rewarded bunch, who probably profit more from any wisp of outsider or underdog cred they can possibly muster than from one more brick of industry gold. You can hear the movie rallying behind Clooney's big speech about how the house always wins, and so your best option is to bet big and take the house. That's exactly what Ocean's Eleven did, suggesting a Hollywood ethos that might plausibly be rebuilt, rejecting the antic, shoddy, or simplistic and revaluing smarts, story, and swank—beating the current studio system at its own game, using the very assets that "studio" once connoted. Of course, as soon as Clooney makes this plea, Pitt's Rusty Ryan calls it out as puffed-up and pre-rehearsed, and the movie returns to the snazzy, un-speechy business of delighting the bejeezus out of us. The same lightning has not been caught in any subsequent bottle. Ocean's Twelve seemed smug and overplotted; it wasn't sensuous enough to enjoy and didn't solicit audience involvement in quite the same way. Ocean's Thirteen was a luscious light show at times, but was evanescent as an experience, and I declined to subsidize key members of this gang on their vacay to Europe for The Monuments Men. Section Eight itself disbanded by the decade's end. I wish Ocean's Eleven had inspired more stars, studios, and filmmakers to echo its recipe, but there's also something appealing about its rarity: a mirage about the Mirage, an oasis of abundant pleasures, all the more succulent because they don't seem easily repeatable.

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