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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2002
A smooth operator revives the Rat Pack
Hollywood has been cranking out remakes of classic films for some time now, and while there are both hits ("Dial M") and misses ("Psycho"), most of them end up being compared unfavorably to the originals. Now some Tinseltown genius has come up with a bold new paradigm that proactively short-circuits this criticism: remaking lousy movies! Hey, they can only get better, right? Right?
Wrong. Go see Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" for proof that dumb can indeed get dumber. The nadir of this "low concept" movement will probably come with the "Rollerball" remake later this year, but in the meantime, you can watch Stephen Soderbergh try and turn garbage into gold with "Ocean's 11," his update of the 1960 "Rat Pack" star vehicle of the same name. Maybe he's an alchemist, because the Soderbergh magic doesn't fail him on this remake.
That is, I guess it's a remake: Soderbergh kept the original film's title, the plot concept of a Las Vegas casino heist, and its bright idea of an ensemble cast of big names. Pretty much everything else was tossed, but that's no loss, as the original "Ocean's 11" was a sad excuse for a film. Or rather, it was a clever excuse for Frank Sinatra and pals to get drunk everyday and pick up an extra paycheck for doing it on-camera, as well as a favor for Frankie's friends in the Mob who wanted some big-screen cool to lure the punters to Vegas' gambling dens.
The ongoing mini-boom that's produced an ironic revival of swinger/lounge/cocktail culture in the States was no doubt reason enough for Soderbergh's re-make to get green-lighted. But let's get real: The Rat Pack of "Ocean's 11" -- Frankie, Dino, Sammy, and Joey -- just don't seem that iconic anymore. These days, their buttoned-up suits, greased-back hair, flagrant womanizing and arrogant middle-aged boozy insouciance seem antiquated, about as cool as an LDP nomikai. Their acting ranged from listless to inept; Sinatra had more clout than the director, so the results are not pretty to watch.
Soderbergh, on the other hand, is a fine director of actors, and most of Hollywood's big names are clamoring to work with him. This time out, he's got George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts, and -- needless to say -- he doesn't flush that talent down the toilet. While the performances are all professional (unlike the Rat Pack's), it still seems like everyone involved had a lot of fun making this breezy, witty flick. Furthermore, the cast works hard to make you like them, as opposed to expecting you to kiss their butts in gratitude for merely appearing on the screen. Like I said, it can only get better, right?
Clooney plays Danny Ocean, a smooth operator who starts planning a new heist as soon as he gets out of jail, a bold plan to hit three Vegas casinos simultaneously. Clooney, as usual, has the roguish super-suave aura cranked up to 11, which is half in earnest -- judging from his popularity among the ladies -- and half an ironic appropriation of old-school movie-star charm, an amalgamation of Bogart, Grant and Gable.
This works largely because he's got some whip-crack sharp dialogue with Julia Roberts, playing his ex-wife Tess, who's now attached to one of the targeted casino's owners (Andy Garcia). Unlike her shrill performance in "The Mexican," Roberts is pitched just right here: "You're a thief and a liar," she tells Danny, who snaps back, "I only lied about being a thief."
The back and forth continues: "You don't do that anymore?"
You get the idea. Soderbergh is one of the few working directors with an ear for the timing involved with this kind of repartee, as he proved with J-Lo and Clooney in "Out of Sight," and he keeps it dry and cool here. He's just as good at keeping the machinations of the heist clicking along briskly; this is one of those films where for the robbery to work, about a zillion little things have to happen simultaneously -- Soderbergh mines this for both suspense and laughs.
Brad Pitt gets the sidekick role as Rusty, a gambler friend of Danny's who's one of 11 guys in on the job. Pitt tends to shine when he's not the center of attention -- think "12 Monkeys" or "Snatch" -- and he has some great moments here, but the supporting cast are nipping at his heels: Matt Damon as a slick pickpocket; Don Cheadle as a cockney explosives expert; and especially Ellliot Gould, who plays a hopelessly gauche Vegas operator; his sartorial sense makes Robert De Niro in "Casino" look like Giorgio Armani.
It takes all their moves, however, and some fast and sharp jabs at characterization, to keep this fundamentally light film from being utterly forgettable. The cast is spread mighty thin, the elaborately planned robbery is tricky yet familiar (somewhere between "The Score" and "Mission Impossible") and Clooney's performance in the lead could have been assembled from outtakes of "Out of Sight."
Like most Soderbergh films from Phase 2 of his career -- "Out of Sight," "Erin Brockovich," and "Traffic" -- "Ocean's 11" is imaginatively shot, charismatic and doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence, a quality that remains a rarity among current Hollywood product. And yet -- like the other films -- it breaks no new ground. For an Oscar-winning director who has the opportunity to really strike out and make something bold, this film seems more than a little lazy and safe.
Think of what Francis Ford Coppola did after winning his "Godfather 2" Oscars -- "Apocalypse Now" -- and one can't help but be a little disappointed by Soderbergh's career trajectory. There's got to be a middle-way between Soderbergh's oblique art-film past and his current incarnation as a craftsman of mature but genre-bound showcases for Hollywood talent, but "Ocean's 11" sure ain't it. It is, however, fun, and that counts for something.