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Ocean’s Eleven (Stephen Soderbergh) 2001 

Apparently, nothing seems to spoil Stephen Soderbergh like success. After the huge triumph of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his Palm D’Or winning debut feature, he lapsed into a series of failed films (King of the Hill, Kafka, and The Underneath). It’s rather unfortunate to see that trend seemingly repeating after he delivered last year’s double whammy of Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Ocean’s Eleven, his latest film, is a disappointingly substandard heist flick made noteworthy only by the big-name ensemble that it has inexplicably attracted. 

The film features several A-list actors that generally carry their own films, but it’s disheartening that none of them looked at the chance to work in an ensemble as an opportunity to play with or shed their typical onscreen persona. So, in typical fashion, we get George Clooney in what is a pale shadow of his Out of Sight performance, Julia Roberts as a shrill career girl who’s ultimately confused about love, Matt Damon as the nervous young prodigy, and Brad Pitt as the cocksure swaggerer with the unchecked id (though seeing him struggle with a pile of horrid looking nachos was the highlight of the film for me). There’s nothing inherently wrong with these personas, as there’s a good reason that all of these celebrities are famous, but to see them treading water as they are here is depressing, no matter what the ambitions of the project. One of the best things about genre pictures is that they allow actors to be over the top or to work outside their standard roles. Since the audience knows roughly what the plot in a heist flick will bring, surprises are often filtered through in acting choices or thematic elements. Ocean’s Eleven seems to want us to take pleasure in its typecasting, and is relatively inconsequential thematically. 

Since the film doesn’t aspire to any level of subtext, one would hope that at least the theft itself is cleverly staged. Unfortunately, it isn’t. I could easily rattle off a dozen heist flicks that do what this film does, better (for example - Rififi, Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Jackie Brown, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Newton Boys, Reservoir Dogs, Mission: Impossible, this year’s Snatch, Sexy Beast, The Score or Heist, or my favorite of Soderbergh’s films, Out of Sight). There’s remarkably little tension in the film, since there’s no sense of danger to be found. Instead of suspense, a smart-alecky frat boy’s outlook is presented. This might allow for a few funny moments and amusing one-liners (though half of them fall flat on their faces), but it never, ever allows us for a moment to worry about the crew. They’re supposed to be loveable since they’re pretty and clever, even though they’re stealing, but thanks to lousy dialogue and a general lack of motivation, none of them manages the charm they’ve proved capable of in the past. 

So much of Ocean’s Eleven seems as if it coasting by on reputation. For example, even though she’s poorly lit and relatively bad-looking here, we’re supposed to think Julia Roberts is hot here just because Matt Damon says she is and because she was hot in other films. The sense of laid-back cool that the film strives for is never achieved since it’s so referential of other films. It’s as if the film’s mimicking what it thinks we think is cool instead of just accepting that its premise is inherently cool (which it admittedly is). It’s as if the director was so sure that this film’s cast and commercial premise made the film a sure thing that he had little interest in making it good. The sad thing is that it’s not even an ambitious failure like his Kafka was, but simply a film that fails to entertain on the basest levels. Surely, Soderbergh will regain his footing as a director, and return to making great films in the future, and hopefully it won’t take as many stumbles until his next good work, but Ocean’s Eleven shows his propensity for inconsistency. 



Jeremy Heilman