RogerBW's Blog

Ocean's Eleven (2001) 04 March 2019

2001 caper film, dir. Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, Brad Pitt; IMDb / allmovie. Gambler and con-man Danny Ocean gets out of prison, and immediately plans his biggest heist yet.

Of course, this is a film made in Hollywood without anyone holding anyone else's sensitive bits in a vice, so most of the titular Eleven are white, all of them are male, and indeed the only named female character is Ocean's ex-wife and his victim's current partner – and yes, naturally she becomes extra stakes in the dick-measuring contest between them. (Julia Roberts, playing her, looks miserable; presumably she'd read the script all the way through.) Yeah, fewer women here than in the 1960 version.

The basic narrative approach wasn't new when this came out, and has been widely imitated since: there is a complex plan, which of course the audience isn't told about, and things go wrong with it… and for each mishap the audience is challenged to decide, is it really something that wasn't prepared for, or was it secretly prepared for or even relied on? Well, actually, there aren't all that many twists here – mostly just a single big one about how the crooks and their money get out, which won't fool anyone who's used to thinking about this kind of logistics – which comes as something of a surprise if one's expecting the sophistication of more recent productions (particularly on television, where without the same time span to fill and without quite the need to make things clear to the stupidest of tens of millions of potential filmgoers a writer can afford to get a little more complex).

Apart from that it's all about style. In 2001 both Clooney and Pitt were making the transition from hot film star to actual actor, and while they make some missteps here they mostly get it right. They're helped by Peter Andrews' cinematography, since he went to some trouble to use fewer, longer shots than was the fashion at the time; one has time to orientate onself, appreciate what's happening, and enjoy the facial expressions and body language. Apart from Clooney and Pitt, there are some pleasant bits, but the promise of an all-star cast is at least bent out of shape; nobody here has much of a personality, and it's really only the leads who get to show off their acting chops. Indeed, even compared with the original, there's a shocking lack of characterisation; yes, the opening scenes are similarly spent on showing us who's who, but this crew has no old friendships or in-jokes, and they're all recruited by Ocean rather than being old war buddies – so their trust in each other, and indeed they argue rather less than the 1960 version of the gang, seems to come out of nowhere.

Where the film mostly fails is in its attempts to paint the victim as a villain. The protagonists are after all criminals; they're not doing this because of a desperate need to eat but because they think it'll be fun and lucrative, and in these situations it's always helpful to point out that the victim deserves what he gets. Well, Andy Garcia gets a few threatening lines, but most of the time he's just a guy trying to keep his casino from being robbed; while I don't think much of casinos, I can't help feeling at least a bit of sympathy.

Well, technically three casinos with a single vault between them, presumably to call back to the five casinos of the original. But this is never mentioned after the earliest planning phase.

Of course all this is probably to give the film more analysis than it really deserves. Even more than the original, it's designed as disposable entertainment; the slight surprise, eighteen years later, is that it stands up as well as it does, that it's genuinely enjoyable and even sometimes a little tense. Followed by Ocean's Twelve.

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