Style, as a manly way of life, is dead in America. We are a sweat-pants-wearing, Burrito-Supreme-eating, Chrysler-minivan-driving people. Today, élan means wearing the baseball cap backwards. Suave is dropping your date off at the mall before parking the car. Charm entails prefacing the word "bee-yatch" with "yo."
But it wasn't always like that. There was a sliver of time in the late '50s and early '60s when living in style was an accepted way of life for men. As personified by the infamous Rat Pack, that meant getting soused on martinis, throwing money away at the tables, dining at the Playboy Club in your tux, and bringing your date back to the pad to listen to jazz on the hi-fi. That was the way to live: to swing with style. Now, it all seems like a distant fantasy. The art of gambling most typically involves watching video screens and punching buttons, Las Vegas is a theme-park landscape dotted by giant Sphinxes and pirate ships, and drunks are just drunks. Frankie and Dino croon to us only in our memories, and the whole Rat Pack philosophy has congealed into a cheesy game for retro-swingers to play on the weekends.
So can you really make a movie today that takes all that campy stuff seriously? Steven Soderberghthe art house auteur who accidentally went Hollywoodgives it a healthy roll of the dice. By remaking and reforming the Rat Pack opus Ocean's 11, he continues his recent habit of updating abandoned Hollywood genres. So far, he's done the romantic caper (Out of Sight), the revenge pic (The Limey), and the one-person-against-the-corrupt-system drama (Erin Brockovich). But with his heist flick, Ocean's 11, Soderbergh faced a bigger challenge than just which old tunes to put on the soundtrack: How do you make a movie about a type of man who no longer exists?
The answer is: you don't. Nobody's going to believe in a character who behaves like Frank Sinatra. But then that begs the question of why you should bother remaking Ocean's 11 in the first place. The original movie wasn't so much entertaining as it was inspiring to wannabe Ratsyou got to see Frank and his boys pal around on their home turf, and you knew that that's probably the way they walked and talked in real life. But that'd never work today because those people aren't around anymore. So rather than make a statement about anachronistic cool, Soderbergh tried to turn Ocean's 11 into entertainment. He succeeds to a point, after which you'll start wondering why it's going to take another hour to finish the movie.
Of all the current Hollywood hunks, George Clooney is the only one with even a scintilla of genuine old-school moxie, a fellow who might very well be a lovable womanizing playboy (though, hell, even Peter Lawford probably could've flattened him with one to the jaw). He takes the Sinatra role of Danny Ocean, a con artist thief just released from the pen and already plotting a new score. Only this job will be the biggest ever: to clean out three of Las Vegas' richest casinos. He traverses the country recruiting an all-star band of thieves: Brad Pitt as an L.A. card sharp who acts just like Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle as a Cockney (?!) explosives expert, Matt Damon as a Chicago pickpocket, Carl Reiner as a Florida retiree/conman, Bernie Mac as a crooked dealer, and several others whom I can't remember. Doesn't matter. They all get together and we watch them pull off their heist.
That's it, really. Ocean's 11 is a very pleasant assemblage of stars who go through the motions. It's not their fault, though. None of the characters are ever actually in harm's way, and each one does his job well. Inner conflicts? Who needs 'em. Things proceed exactly as you would expect. While there is certainly pleasure to be had in seeing the revealsSoderbergh wisely doesn't tell us how they're going to pull off the job, he just shows usthis isn't exactly new stuff. You've got your convenient 3D computer schematics of the entire vault lay-out, your laser-beam motion detectors, your intercepted security-camera video feeds. (And let's not forget the secret connection between the supply room ceiling and the elevator shaftwho knew that architects routinely put those in?) If you've seen any of this year's other heist movies, Ocean's 11 isn't exactly going to wow you with new vault-intrusion techniques.
So what's left? That would be the implied chemistry between Clooney and Julia Roberts, who plays Danny Ocean's ex-wife, Tess. This is where screenwriter Ted Griffin III tries to make things gel, inserting a little motivation for Danny's big scheme. Tess, you see, just happens to be "with" the evil owner (Andy Garcia) of the three casinos Danny is going to rip off. Thus, the heist is not only a revenge for Danny, but his means of winning Tess back. Not a bad plot embellishment, except for one problem: almost zero chemistry between Clooney and Roberts. While Clooney does have a swashbuckler's sly charm, Roberts will forever be a wholesome, healthy, sweet midwestern gal with a great smile. What would such a simple girl ever see in conniving thieves or cruel casino owners? Who knows. Certainly not the audience.
With lots of helicopter views and neon-lit night shots, Soderbergh tries his best to infuse Ocean's 11 with a sense of Vegas style, but it's a losing bet. The Strip, just like the rest of the U.S. of A., has traded local flavor for mini-mart convenience and Disney-style attractions. Perhaps Soderbergh has made a statement about anachronistic cool after all, sadly.