Monday, June 4, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen: The Manliness of Men Being Manly In Vegas, In Sunglasses


Somewhere towards the end of Ocean’s Thirteen, with Frank Sinatra singing “this town is a lonely town” on the soundtrack, Elliot Gould has a philosophical turn. Before considering the wisdom of his words, it is worth remembering that Gould’s role in the Ocean’s series, as Rueben Tishkoff, is to wear shell suits and medallions, and glasses which are bigger than his face. He is a cartoon, but not a fool, and his every appearance on the screen is a cause of levity. So, what he says, while chewing a stogie on a fine Las Vegas night, is: “The moment you become embarrassed of who you are, you lose yourself.”
Well, Ocean’s Twelve was a bit of an embarrassment, and it showed every sign of being lost, as it traipsed forgettably across Europe. Thirteen – which goes under the tagline “revenge is a funny thing” - is much better. The good humour of Ocean’s Eleven is restored, as is its natural geography. The first film, remember, was a remake of a self-indulgent heist caper with George Clooney (Danny Ocean) and his pals replacing Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. For director Stephen Soderbergh, it was an exercise in nostalgia, not for Vegas, but for movie stars, and for a time when men were men.
The Ocean’s films are, in a very specific sense, buddy movies. They are about friendship and easy chatter and guys being guys as much as they are about diamond robberies and casino cons. Women are peripheral and decorative, though Ellen Barkin makes a memorable contribution here as Abigail Sponder, the generously-cleavaged sidekick to the movie’s Bad Guy, Willy Bank, played in his lower registers by Al Pacino. Pacino and Barkin don’t quite re-create the onscreen chemistry they displayed in Sea of Love, but they wave at its memory, which is a fine thing.
The story is complicated and very simple. The simple part is the motive: the guys (Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac et al) reconvene to exact revenge for Rueben, who has suffered a heart attack after being double-crossed by Bank, who is opening a supercasino, The Bank.
The complicated part is the doing of it. The casino – a CGI tower in the shape of a twisted sail – is designed to be as secure as it is luxurious, so Ocean’s men attack it on both fronts. In a comic side-story, they make ensure that the journalist sent to review the hotel (a hangdog David Paymer) has a hellish stay. Foul smells are pumped into his suite, his food is poisoned, and when he uses his special hotel reviewer’s microscopic spectacles to check for cleanliness, the sheets on the bed are revealed to be a refugee camp for bacteria.
It would be stretching matters to claim that Ocean’s Thirteen has a point, but it does offer a satire of the luxury industry. The Bank is a casino where the silverware is gold, Pacino’s tan has a tan, and, as Miss Sponder, Barkin’s job is to banish ugliness. Only happy faces are to be seen front-of-house, and waitresses are fired when they display a healthy Body Mass Index. (To make this legal, their job title is “models who serve”.)
For Soderbergh (acting as his own Director of Photography under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) it is an exercise in visual dynamism. He uses the camera as if spying on his actors – watching through windows as they eat, creeping across the room like a stalker. He makes nostalgic use of split screens during the action sequences, and uses filters to distort the colours (green on Clooney in the Vegas night, blue on Matt Damon in a London street). Though there is a lot of talk, the funky soundtrack makes sure the viewer has neither the time nor the inclination to consider the more extreme improbabilities of the plot. (Could you really import the Channel Tunnel drill into Nevada and burrow undetected beneath the streets of Las Vegas? Oh, what the hell…)
So, what remains is a witty hymn to suaveness, and to the chiselled beauty of movie stars being movie stars in what may be the most expensive home movie ever made. The character names are comic, and almost irrelevant. This is George and Brad and Matt having fun. Clooney wears a droopy moustache, Pitt a hippie wig, Damon a hooked nose. You know, from a minute in, when Brad Pitt removes his balaclava and throws a sideways smile, that it’s going to be all right. These men are fooling with stardom. They are playing their idealised selves. “You think this is funny,” Andy Garcia asks. “Well,” says George Clooney, “it sure ain’t sad.”
It ends where it begins, with handsome men in sunglasses waiting for a plane.