In 1989, when his sex, lies and videotape won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival--an unheard-of feat for a low-budget indie film by a young American director--Steven Soderbergh described the experience as like being "a Beatle for a day." Since then, while enjoying a career that has emerged as one of the most remarkable and fascinating in recent American cinema, Soderbergh has continued refining a sensibility that often recalls the 1960s in its mix of playfulness and sophistication. His new Ocean's Eleven, though, is the first time he has figuratively revisited that decade; it's an updated remake of the 1960 crime comedy that starred the "Rat Pack" of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford.
In context, Ocean's Eleven belongs to the plusher half of a career that now seems to divide into two distinct epochs. From sex, lies and videotape through Kakfa (1991), King of the Hill (1993), The Underneath (1995), Schizopolis and Gray's Anatomy (both 1997), Soderbergh was the consummate indie outsider: quirky, intelligent and ambitious in the most unpredictable ways. With the major-league success of 1998's Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, however, it became clear that he wasn't destined to stay in indieville's bargain basement; the film marked Soderbergh as a Hollywood contender of great resourcefulness and promise, an impression confirmed last by the double-barreled triumph of his Erin Brockovich and Traffic.
The most noteworthy thing about Soderbergh's move up to the majors, though, has been that he's made it without sacrificing his indie spirit and creative integrity. He followed Out of Sight, which was as intricately crafted as it was exuberantly entertaining, with The Limey (1999), a low-budgeter that seemed to meditate on offbeat '60s gems like Point Blank and Petulia. And as much as Traffic may have been a prominent release with wall-to-wall stars and an epic scope, it was also independently produced and filmed in a manner that Soderbergh has described as "down and dirty, run and gun."
Ocean's Eleven, in effect, combines the star-studded, big-canvas sweep of Traffic with the jokey pop aura and elaborate craftmanship of Out of Sight. It also follows other recent Soderberghs in giving him a dual role on the set; in addition to directing, he also acted as the camera operator.
That may seem like a minor sidelight, but I think it also says something important about both the strengths and limitations of his work overall. In a phrase, Soderbergh is a film geek. He seems to have a virtually instinctive, highly tactile engagement with the medium's physical aspects: the grain of the film stock, the heft of the camera, the particular acuity of different lenses. Such geekiness was not a common director's attribute in old Hollywood, and it may not survive the current shift to digital cinema, since video does not have the same physicality as film. Primarily associated with "the film generation" that came of age in, yes, the '60s, it accounts for the distinctive, visceral textures you find in movies by the likes of Scorsese, Spielberg, Malick, Oliver Stone, David Lynch and the like.
Although he has some competition in the likes of Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch, Soderbergh may well be the geekiest of the '80s/'90s generation. And there's no doubt that this quality accounts for the fact that, frame for frame, his movies are as smartly mounted and as minutely watchable as any issuing from an American director. He seems to have celluloid in his veins. As Jerry Weintraub, who produced both the original Ocean's Eleven and this one, puts it in the film's press notes: "Soderbergh is a walking camera. He doesn't need Panavision. If he could connect the camera to his brain, he could shoot the movie himself. ... He was born with a God-given talent and that talent is he thinks movie." [Emphasis added.]
There's an occasional downside to such intensive involvement, and it's that the orientation toward style can leave substance as a secondary concern; thin material will get the nod merely if it presents really interesting or cool technical challenges. This, in fact, was the source of my big disappointment with Traffic, which took a subject labeled important by the media--drugs--and then treated it with a relentless, though self-consciously serious, superficiality. The movie was derived from a British TV drama, and showed it; a mile wide and an inch deep, it had all the profundity of your typical miniseries. (Without question, it looked great, and Soderbergh got topnotch performances from his actors.)
Ocean's Eleven, though a very different type of movie, has many of the same problems, which ultimately reduce to one: a script by a relatively inexperienced writer (Ted Griffin) whose sensibility doesn't seem to extend much beyond television. Like its prototype, which I haven't seen, the film is a heist comedy-drama about a team of 11 criminals attempting to knock over several Las Vegas casinos at once. Significantly, the angle of attack is very pre-Taliban--oops, that was a typo, I mean pre-Tarantino.
Here's how Soderbergh explains what he was up to: "When I say Ocean's Eleven is a throwback to an earlier period in cinema, I mean that the movie is never mean, it's never gratuitous, nobody is killed, nobody is humiliated for no reason or is the butt of a joke. ... I wanted it to be a sort of light entertainment and I didn't think darker or meaner ideas had a place. ... I wanted it to be sparkling."
As far as I'm concerned, those ambitions are entirely commendable. Problem is, if you want to dispense with the bullets and the brass knuckles and have a crime film work on charm alone, well, it had be better be charming. And Ocean's Eleven isn't. Instead, it is well-tooled but flat. It goes about its entertainment chores in an earnest, over-elaborate way that, like Traffic, seems to confuse complexity with worth. It sparkles mainly on the technical level.
Instead of compelling characters, it has a stellar cast. George Clooney plays Danny Ocean, a thief who gets released from prison and immediately begins planning his biggest crime ever, one so difficult that it demands a team of criminal experts. So he sets about recruiting, and ends up with a crew that includes Brad Pitt as a card sharp, Matt Damon as a pickpocket, Don Cheadle (sporting a lame Cockney accent) as a demolitions expert, Casey Affleck and Scott Caan as a pair of auto techies, Elliott Gould as an ex-casino owner, Carl Reiner as a retired con artist, and so on. Since most name actors now want to work with Soderbergh, and will do so for a fraction of their normal fees, he also managed to sign up Julia Roberts as Danny's estranged wife and Andy Garcia as the Las Vegas kingpin whose cash reserves are the scheme's target.
Now, all those actors playing underworld specialists sounds like it ought to be fun in a Batman kind of way, or perhaps a Mission: Impossible way. (I'm thinking more the '60s TV shows than the more recent movies.) That is, it might have a kind of cartoonish exaggeration or, alternately, it could enmesh us in the nuts and bolts of how master criminals go about their business. But Griffin's script does neither. Oh, it clearly delineates its many characters (an admitted feat that is, again, mainly technical) and unfolds the heist from introduction through completion, but there's no special spin or flavor to any of this. It reminded me of the proverbial main difference between this sort of movie a generation or two ago and today. Back when, the screenwriter would do his homework by studying how criminals execute a heist. Today, writers study other heist movies. That helps explain Ocean's Eleven's you've-seen-it-before feel: You have seen it before, and so has the writer.
Ocean's Eleven would like to be The Sting but ends up the kind of film that washes out of your memory before the end credits finish. On paper, surely, it looks like the perfect, post-Sept. 11 movie: sheer mindless fun of a very polite and familiar sort. But on the screen it mainly proves that champagne doesn't work only as a concept, even one with a famous label; it also needs taste and fizz. Most damningly, Soderbergh has said he wanted his actors to have a good time together but "without having it look like they were having more fun making the movie than you are watching it."
Ultimately, that's his signal failure. And my feeling was that not just his cast but Soderbergh himself had a lot more fun making the movie than I did watching it. The risk of that, of course, is part of what makes a film geek a film geek. For this type, the fun with the actors, the cool feel of the camera and all the tricks you can now do in the editing room are ends in themselves. Will the audience share the filmmaker's enthusiasm? Does it matter? To the geek, ultimately, perhaps not. And therein lies the breed's limits.
In any case, Ocean's Eleven is the second Soderbergh film in a row that left me wishing he would ally himself with a really accomplished writer, or stumble upon a great script. His talents are too real to be squandered on second-rate material.