Deja Review: "Ocean’s Eleven"

A quick word about “Deja Reviews”: I rewatch movies very often, especially ones I like. So I’ve decided that I’ll try, once a week, to rewatch a classic and review it here. This week, obviously, is Ocean’s Eleven.

I am a big admirer of Steven Soderbergh. He is one of a few directors who can ride the line between arthouse/indie outings and mainstream, Hollywood-scale popcorn fare – he can make a film like Traffic or Sex Lies and Videotape, then turn around and churn out something like crowd-pleasers Contagion or Ocean’s Eleven. 

Eleven, above all else, is an exercise in style over substance. The film doesn’t have a lot to say and doesn’t really deal with any big thematic issues – it’s a film about a group of guys who want to steal money from a casino owner. Where the film’s strength comes from is in how stylish it is – a tightly written script with some rapid fire dialogue that rivals the best of Tarantino, an upbeat jazzy score and astounding cinematography lend an incredible sense of fun to the film that so few others manage to pull off.

The script is perhaps its strongest aspect. The characters of Danny and Rusty (George Clooney and Brad Pitt respectively, in great performances) have a remarkable chemistry – one gets the sense that they have a telepathic connection at times. They have conversations without finishing sentences, communicate through glances, and talk about things that make sense to the audience as if they are completely normal conversation topics (the scene where Danny pitches the heist to Rusty is especially notable, as Rusty rattles off a list of cons that will need to be done – I’ve caught “Boesky”, “Jim Brown”, “Leon Spinx” and the “biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever” – we get the impression that these guys understand them, when I’m honestly not so sure the screenwriters themselves do. That’s pretty impressive). While these two are perhaps the highlight of the film, all of the characters are very well written and have great moments of conversation – the Mormon twins consistently have these. Their game of 20 Questions which ends after only two particularly sticks out. Basher’s obscure references that make the crew (and the audience) throw their hands up in confusion are great, as are Linus’ attempts at being relevant as the newbie among the ranks of master thieves. These characters aren’t oceans of depth, for sure – but they’re so well written that you don’t really care that you’re wading in the shallows.

Soderbergh – or, I suppose, “Peter Andrews”, as he credits himself as cinematographer – is very gifted with the camera, adopting a visual style that emphasizes movement. He handles moving shots better than most directors, and always in unorthodox ways. Whether he’s mounting a tripod in the back of a car driven by Pitt and Clooney as they talk, the scenery around them moving while they remain in the same place, or placing a camera at the top of the escalator or Clooney rises into the frame, nearly every shot focuses on the way these characters move. This focus is appropriate, as is evident in the incredibly well directed long takes during the planning and the heist itself. With members of the crew planted all over the casino, Soderbergh’s camera follows casino owner Terry Benedict, pausing on each character as they perform their assigned task, before returning to Benedict’s self important walk throughout the floor. These shots give the heist the necessary sense of speed and timing – Soderbergh shows us all these different cogs whirring at just the right time and place, keeping the whole machine moving. It’s a wonderful feat that really sells the movie.

What sets Ocean’s Eleven apart from most heist films is the way it relishes in dangling information right in front of your eyes, and yet preventing you from connecting all the dots. It gives you large pieces of information, and allows you to think you have the entire heist figured out, but a last twist in the final reel pulls your expectations back and lets you see the whole scheme in its grandeur. It makes the film almost infinitely rewatchable, as you begin to notices pieces of the whole plan forming from the very beginning, and as you notice that everything you needed to know to understand the actual plan was right there the whole time. It’s a brilliant bit of cinematic sleight of hand that works so well in films such as these – Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is perhaps the only film that manages this feat better than Ocean’s Eleven (I expect that Prestige will be covered here eventually, as I watch it monthly – it’s my favorite film, after all).

Ocean’s Eleven is not a deep character study. It’s a superbly well made film that aims above all to be two hours of solid, engaging fun. It’s smarter than most films of its type and has a whip-sharp sense of humor. It shows quite clearly that all the actors involved had a great time making this film, and it translates into an equally great viewing experience.

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