In a summer where every intended blockbuster has so far been the third in a series—Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Shrek the Third—it’s a relief to note that the fourth third to come along, Ocean’s Thirteen, is surprisingly the best of the lot. No, Steven Soderbergh’s third film in the adventures of Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and company doesn’t quite measure up to Ocean’s Eleven (2001), but that’s no disgrace since that film was an entertainment so nearly perfect as to almost cross over into the realm of a great movie by any standard. (Actually, it did cross over into that realm before crossing itself up with a mood-shattering tag scene meant to lead to a sequel.)
Maybe it’s the fact that the first sequel, Ocean’s Twelve, was such a letdown that lowered expectations for a third film makes any improvement seem better than it otherwise might. I’m not sure on that point—a mere three days away from a single viewing is no time to make such a call—but I do know that Ocean’s Thirteen is … well, oceans ahead of its immediate predecessor. (And it looks even better if you compare it to the last—and blessedly little seen—Soderbergh-Clooney collaboration, The Good German, which sneaked out of Warner Bros. for about 10 minutes last Christmas before retreating to an inglorious half-life on home video recently.) On its own merits, Ocean’s Thirteen is simply terrific star-studded amusement of a kind that’s not to be sneered at.
Much more focused than its predecessor thanks to a simple plot that lends itself to embellishment and convolution without the kind of meandering globetrotting that marred Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen seems freer, snappier and funnier. The setup—delivered in an agreeably jumbled manner that foreshadows the film’s deliberate 1960s sensibility—finds Oceanite Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) double-crossed by gambler-hotelier Willie Bank (Al Pacino), a villain so completely nasty and amoral that he makes their original adversary, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), look like a good guy. In fact, circumstances (and finally Danny Ocean) conspire to turn Benedict into a good guy along the way. Reuben is such a broken man that he doesn’t even have the requisite will to live following the heart attack that felled him upon being cheated. The only answer, of course, is for Danny and the others to bring down Bank, give Reuben a reason to live, and set the wrongs to rights. And the way to do this: Destroy the opening of Bank’s swanky new hotel/casino.
That’s the crux of the plot, which allows much room for clever ruses, impersonations, high-tech high jinks and double-crosses aplenty. In other words, it’s the perfect basis for a film of this type. It gives room for every member of the cast to have a moment or more in the sun. Performers like Carl Reiner, who was given such short shrift in the second film, are here afforded comedic field days, while even second-tier players like Casey Affleck and Scott Caan are handed truly funny scenes all their own. (The subplot involving Affleck more or less accidentally inciting a dice factory of Mexican workers to strike, thereby gumming up the scheme, is beautifully conceived and handled.) The main stars—Clooney and Brad Pitt—are well served, being allowed to play off each other in their particularly effective effortless manner, while Matt Damon has an apparent great time masquerading for a long stretch of the film with an alarming fake nose. (I wouldn’t be expecting the nose to work the same Oscar magic for Damon that a prominent prosthetic proboscis did for Nicole Kidman, however.)
Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones are written out of the film in a couple lines of not very explanatory dialogue—done in such a way that their possible return for a sequel is carefully not ruled out. The addition of Pacino and Ellen Barkin to the cast of usual suspects is a plus, even if neither is given anything particularly taxing to do. They undeniably do add to the film’s overall upscale sheen, and that’s not just window dressing in a movie of this type.
Soderbergh’s direction—always a crapshoot with a filmmaker deliberately devoid of an udentifiable personal style—is right on the money this time. His tendency to whip the camera around, indulge in zoom shots, and fill the frame with bright pop-art colors is much more under control than similar flourishes were in Ocean’s Twelve. This time it’s clear that he’s emulating the style of a glossy ‘60s caper comedy—and it works. Plus, he allows the film to stop for a moment to indulge in a nice bit of reflection that intentionally recalls the fountain scene (right down to Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” on the soundtrack) that should have climaxed the first film. If he less successfully tries to duplicate that Ocean’s Eleven scene—substituting fireworks and Sinatra for fountains and Debussy—toward the end, it’s easy to overlook the misstep in light of how much really does work this time. For pure enjoyable moviegoing, there’s nothing better out there right now. Rated PG-13 for adult themes, mild violence and language.