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Friday, Aug. 10, 2007
BEING COOL WHEN THE HEAT'S ON
No waves made in this Ocean
Walk into a Starbucks or a McDonald's in Nagoya, New York or Nairobi, and the odds are your frothy latte or spongy burger will taste exactly the same. That's what franchise food delivers: a safe and comfortingly familiar, almost identical experience every time.
The same could be said of franchise films; just look at "Ocean's Thirteen," the sequel to "Ocean's Twelve," which was itself the sequel to — you guessed it — "Ocean's Eleven." If you've seen either of the first two "Ocean's" movies, you sure don't need me to tell you what you'll be getting in "Thirteen."
Nevertheless, some weeks my job is to state the obvious. "Ocean's Thirteen" gives you George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in supersuave mode, a complicated and inventive casino heist with about a zillion little subplots, a bigger budget, and one new big-name actor in the credits: Al Pacino.
"Thirteen" is, however, a step up from "Twelve," with its arty and out-of-place pseudo-documentary style, which was later appropriated by Clooney with much better results for his own flick "Good Night and Good Luck." This time around, director Steven Soderbergh keeps his experimental side in check, and he delivers a slick, glossy style well-suited to the material. This is not art, after all; this is Las Vegas.
And yet, while everywhere you look in this movie you see people gambling, the makers of this film have tried very hard not to take any gambles themselves. Like the last film, "Thirteen" posits a big, bad casino boss as the enemy, only this time it's Pacino instead of Andy Garcia. Everything's so similar to the last film — they even repeat the jokes. The bit in "Twelve," where Pitt and Clooney are immersed in a TV episode of "Happy Days" is resurrected whole here, except this time they're watching "Oprah."
The plot starts with the eldest member of Danny Ocean's gang, Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould), being cheated out of his share in a new hotel-casino by ruthless developer Willy Bank (Pacino). Reuben suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma, so Danny (Clooney), Rusty (Pitt), Linis (Damon), Basher (Don Cheadle) and the rest of the gang decide to seek revenge on Bank. The problem is how; Bank's casino is monitored by a new super-computer-driven security system that scans punters at the casino and analyses them for signs of cheating.
The Ocean gang want to break the house at the gaming tables on Bank's opening night, so they call in heist expert Roman Nagel (Eddie Izzard) for advice. His plan involves creating a distraction by using a giant tunnel-boring drill to create earthquakelike tremors.
As you can see, the movie's thinking big this time. The heist is totally over the top in the intricacy of its planning, from infiltrating a Mexican factory that manufactures dice (to tamper with them), to sending Linis undercover, armed with fake nose and pheromone spray, to seduce Bank's dragon-lady assistant, Abigail Sponder (Ellen Barkin). Where "Ocean's Eleven" featured a heist of inspired simplicity, the robbery in "Thirteen" is as overblown as Bank's garish mega-hotel (or the movie itself, which basically built an entire casino to film in). It's not the underdogs vs. the fat cats this time; Ocean's gang spends in the tens of millions to defeat Bank, even borrowing cash from their old enemy Terry Benedict (Garcia). When you've got $100 million to spend, pulling off an incredible heist doesn't seem so clever.
It's Clooney's film and, as always, he's unflappable, never losing that poker-faced grin of his, like a kid who knows your pants are on fire but figures he'll let you find out for yourself. Pitt is underused, basically just slouching around, with no love interest like the last film, although we do get to see him stuff gyoza (pork dumplings) into his mouth. (This film, like the last, remains obsessed with shots of the guys sitting around eating, as opposed to the original Sinatra-led "Ocean's Eleven," which was all about drinking.)
Damon's scenes with Ellen Barkin are more obnoxious than funny, as Barkin is forced to come onto him hard (her character being under the influence of an aphrodisiac), while Damon desperately tries to evade this older woman's repulsive embrace. Maybe this would work better if Barkin looked like Nancy Reagan, but if you see her in the tight red dress she wears in the film and then recall that she's 53, your jaw will drop. Damon will be lucky to age as well, though hopefully he'll avoid wearing tight dresses.
"Ocean's Thirteen" is as light and fizzy as a wine cooler, and the buzz lasts about as long. I couldn't phrase it any better, so let me close with the words of my own favorite critic, Salon's Stephanie Zacharek: "It's enjoyable to watch, particularly if you've got nothing better to do."