If you go in to Ocean’s Thirteen hoping for a reinvention of the caper film genre, you will probably leave the theater two hours later feeling disappointed. On the other hand, if you’re simply looking for an amusing, effortless, lighter-than-air entertainment for adults without a single pirate, costumed superhero, or projectile vomiting ogre baby in sight, then Steven Soderbergh’s latest entry in the Ocean’s franchise could be the summer movie for you.
Eschewing the globetrotting excesses of the previous sequel, Ocean’s Thirteen is a return to the familiar Las Vegas territory of the first film, but it is no retread. There are a few new wrinkles this time around and it all begins with the cast. Joining the usual suspects from the earlier movies are Al Pacino as hotelier Willy Bank and Ellen Barkin as his hotel manager Abigail Sponder (notably absent are Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta Jones). Bank is the largest landowner in the state of Nevada and he’s stepped on everyone in the state to earn that title. Unfortunately for him, in order to pull off his latest deal gaining him control of the newest high roller’s casino on the Vegas strip, Bank makes the mistake of stepping on the wrong guy: Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould). Being one of the original Ocean’s Eleven, Reuben, has 10 friends in Las Vegas that you don’t want to mess with. Danny Ocean (George Clooney) tries to be reasonable with Bank as he admonishes him for his shabby treatment of Reuben: “You shook hands with Sinatra,” Danny says. “You should know better.” Alas, Willy really doesn’t know better and Team Ocean suddenly has a new motive for its latest heist: Revenge.
Part of the fun of these movies comes from watching the caper develop and unfold so I won’t risk spoiling anything by detailing too much of it here. It’s enough to say that it involves making sure that Bank’s new casino does not receive the coveted Five Diamond Award from the Royal Review Board and also seeing to it that it loses half a billion dollars in the first night of operation thus causing Bank’s creditors to seize control of the casino.
The details of the scheme, especially the manufacture of a certain act of nature, will certainly cause some eyes to roll with disbelief. Sure, if you want to be a humorless killjoy and a hardass, you can protest that the whole thing defies credibility, but the Ocean’s movies have always depended upon huge amounts of suspension of disbelief. If you start analyzing and picking apart the details of any of them, they come tumbling down like another old casino being demolished on the strip. This isn’t a science experiment so do yourself a favor: don’t ask too many questions and just enjoy the show.
It’s true, if the film has one flaw, it’s that the caper itself doesn’t quite have the audacity or originality of those in the first two films, but there is still much to enjoy. The chuckles are frequent and while you’re not likely to blow a gasket laughing, the film rambles along with a nice easy charm that never wears out its welcome and is punctuated by several outright laughs. For example, there is a bit of business with Casey Affleck and some exploited Mexican factory workers that is very funny. Also, the seemingly throwaway Oprah gag from the trailer has a little more to it and it even leads to an amusing payoff. As in the previous movies there are plenty of goofy disguises, if for no other reason than because it’s funny to see the men responsible for three of People Magazine’s Sexiest Man of the Year Awards dressed in amusing costumes. As Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) insists, “The nose plays.”
It’s not all giggles, however. There is a hint of gravity as the plot plays out against the background of a changing Las Vegas. One character points out that Danny Ocean is an analog player in a digital world. Danny acknowledges as much in a scene with Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) in front of The Bellagio Hotel featuring a reprise of Debussy’s wistful Clair de Lune used effectively in the same location at the end of the first film. Danny reminds Rusty that The Bellagio used to be The Dunes and that Reuben taught him to play craps there. “They built them smaller back then,” agrees Rusty. “They seemed pretty big,” Danny counters. “The town’s changed,” replies Rusty. It’s nothing too heavy and it’s not the main thrust of the film, but it’s a subtle and poignant soupçon of subtext. The film builds on that little sense of melancholy as it ends with a nice grace note of Sinatra singing This Town.
On a technical note, I should add that a nicer looking film you might not see all year long. Photographed by Steven Soderbergh (once again under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), Las Vegas is an impressionistic splash of colors and lights and reflections that has rarely looked so inviting. On the music front, David Holmes returns with another cool/smooth score that holds everything together while keeping it grooving along. The cast is in a similar comfortable zone. This is not an acting workout and there are no virtuoso solo performances here, but everyone adds their important little bit to the whole like members of a crack team of session musicians.
If you liked Ocean’s Eleven, the new film is nearly as good, suffering mainly (if at all) from the sense we’ve already been down this road twice before, or three times if you count the original Rat Pack film from 1960. If you hated Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen is probably an improvement. It comes off simpler, less self-indulgent and altogether less smug than the first sequel. In some ways Thirteen feels like a direct response to the previous film. For better or for worse, Twelve was an attempt to do something different, more flamboyant. I enjoyed Twelve, warts and all, but it was met mostly with scorn and disappointment. Thirteen then is perhaps an acknowledgement that, deep down, audiences really don’t want anything too different. Instead they want a return to the familiar that only feels different.
Many will argue, I’m sure, that Thirteen isn’t different enough. There is no pleasing everyone I guess, but in a season with one movie after another turning cartwheels to get and hold your attention like deranged organ grinder’s monkeys, Ocean’s Thirteen goes down smooth like 25 year old Scotch. It will probably go down too smoothly for some. One of the problems with all of the Ocean’s films to varying degrees is that they feel so effortless, it’s almost as if no one is actually trying at all. I don’t think that’s fair. It takes a lot of work to entertain without appearing to even break a sweat.
Ocean’s Thirteen is a well-oiled, precision crafted machine that hums along, but as Howlin’ Wolf sang, it’s built for comfort, not for speed. Indeed, it’s the closest thing you’ll find at the movies to cruising down the Vegas Strip in a ’59 Cadillac with the top down and the warm, dry desert breeze blowing in your hair. The nicest part is you don’t have to worry about traffic.
Ocean’s Thirteen: USA 2007. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay by Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Cinematography by Steven Soderbergh (credited as Peter Andrews). Music score composed by David Holmes. Starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ellen Barkin, Al Pacino, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Edward Jemison, Shaobo Qin and David Paymer. 2 hours 2 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief sensuality. 3.5 stars (out of 5).