It started life back in 1960 as little more than a vanity vehicle for the “Rat Pack” — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. It wasn’t a very good movie, despite being directed by legendary Hollywood filmmaker Lews Milestone. But it didn’t have to be very good. The whole concept — what we’d now call “high concept” — was to showcase those then-hot stars in a suitable vehicle. The remake may not boast an already associated roster of stars, but it’s otherwise in much the same position: Hot stars, a name director and no real obligation to be all that good in order to succeed at the box office. So it comes as a pleasant surprise that the results are about as much fun and as good as it’s possible for a popcorn picture to be. Director Soderbergh claims to have been both “thrilled and scared” by the script, which he found to be “as close to a perfect piece of entertainment as I’d ever read,” but daunting in that it was “physically bigger than anything I’d ever attempted and, in my opinion, required a style of filmmaking that I hadn’t employed before — one that I was going to have to teach myself.” That’s a very telling assessment in more than one way: For all his success as a director, Soderbergh has yet to develop a specifically recognizable tone of voice — either stylistically or thematically. In many ways, he’s the ultimate chameleon filmmaker. However, one feels about that, it’s the very thing that made him the perfect choice for this project, which by his own admission was his “opportunity to try and make a movie that has no desire except to give you pleasure from beginning to end — a movie that you just surrender to, without embarrassment and without regret.” Ocean’s Eleven is the ultimate guilty pleasure … but without the guilt. It’s vacuous, it has no meaning, it offers nothing so much as an opportunity to shamelessly gawk at top-rank movie stars comporting themselves like the celebrities they are — and it’s almost brilliant. Seamlessly plotted, made with unbelievable care, it’s the essence of a glamorous star romp — so rich that if it was food, it’d be incredibly fattening. Like the original, Soderbergh’s version is a caper picture revolving around the plan to rob a Las Vegas casino — or in this case, three casinos with a take of around $160 million. Caper films seem to be enjoying a resurgence in Hollywood these days. This year had already given us The Score and Heist, but Soderbergh’s picture is unquestionably the piece de resistance of current capers, not in the least because Soderbergh and screenwriter Ted Griffin have no illusions about the seriousness of the proceedings. It’s all for pure fun. And there’s a lot of fun to be had within the film’s astonishingly brisk 116-minute running time. It’s hard to imagine a better cast or a better script for this particular cast — from George Clooney to Brad Pitt to Julia Roberts to Elliott Gould to no less a veteran than Carl Reiner (who practically steals the show). The heist itself is a brilliant tour de force with just the right number of twists and turns and surprises. There’s scarcely a false note in the entire proceedings and Soderbergh — who also photographed the film under the sobriquet of Peter Andrews — captures all the shimmery glamour of Las Vegas with such elan that he transforms this essentially tacky setting into a world of magical exotica. At the very end, Ocean’s Eleven nearly transcends its purely pleasurable qualities in a stunning and strangely emotionally resonant sequence set to Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” that is unfortunately undercut by a largely unnecessary tag scene. Had Soderbergh ended his high-class romp on that penultimate sequence, I would have unreservedly loved the film. As it is, I still like it a lot more than any number of more “serious” films of recent vintage.
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