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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Casino Night offers up ample heist opportunities

Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” is one of the few crimes movies of the last ten years that rewards repeated viewings. It tells the story of a casino heist carried out by conman Danny Ocean (George Clooney). The “eleven” refers to the gang of crooks that Ocean spends a good chunk of the movie rounding up. Eleven particular criminals are required to meet the mind-boggling challenges posed by the targeted casino’s various security apparatuses. It is a job that calls for acrobatics, demolitions expertise, pick pocketing, pyrotechnics and various forms of con artistry.
The gimmick of the casino and its Olympian obstacles allows the film to sidestep the more tiresome trappings of the heist movie. There are no shootouts or car chases or betrayals followed by gruesome revenge sequences. In fact, there’s something unusually upbeat or even life-affirming about this crime movie. Danny Ocean has brought together a circus of criminal talent and there’s great pleasure as these experts prepare the greatest spectacle of their careers.

Given that at least half the movie is focused on the recruitment and planning phases of the heist, it ends up being largely driven by dialogue. Screenwriter Ted Griffin—who went on to write “Matchstick Men,” a similarly warm and character-oriented crime movie—here shows his great skill with dialogue. When Danny Ocean plans the heist with his oldest cohort Rusty (Brad Pitt), their coded shorthand is not only consistently amusing, but also serves to evoke a deep and hard-earned mutual understanding between two otherwise icy criminals. Another human touch: Danny’s ex-wife Tess (unfortunately played by the insufferably bland and stilted Julia Roberts) is now married to the targeted casino’s methodical owner, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). Much of the film’s tension thus stems from our having to uncover the degree to which this heist is a personal affair for Danny.

Steven Soderbergh is better equipped than most filmmakers when it comes to making laid back and witty mainstream entertainments. He is an unusually prolific filmmaker, often releasing two or three movies within a year, and tries his hand at a variety of genres. He does political epics, experimental films and every couple of years he does what might be considered more a mainstream project. However, the best of all these efforts are unified by a refreshing lightness of touch. It’s not that he doesn’t take his material seriously. He just doesn’t let himself get tied down to some preliminary vision of what the film should end up being. He’s consistently excited by the possibilities that reveal themselves in process of filmmaking, which gives much of “Ocean’s Eleven” an improvisational feel, both in its kinetic handheld camera work and in the fun the actors seem to be having with the material.

“Ocean’s Eleven” is a playful film with a self-conscious air of unreality. Soderbergh loves playing with audience expectation. We watch tensely as Danny is about to detonate an explosive. He pushes the detonator and, when nothing happens, starts to wonder aloud whether someone may have forgotten to install the batteries. In a serious heist film, one committed to showing us the gritty truth of the criminal underbelly, we would not be allowed to entertain the possibility that a hardened crook could be so oafish as to forget to put batteries into the detonator. But Soderbergh, no stranger to narrative self consciousness—see “Full Frontal,” for example—wants to remind us with every step that he’s putting on a show for us, a spectacle whose main focus is its own comic energy and ingenuity.
But Soderbegh avoids any kind of alienating self-absorption. Even though the film constantly draws our attention to its showmanship, it is equally about the thrill of the marvel pulled off by our criminals. Its warmest moment comes in an extended sequence where Ocean and his eleven, after a job well done, gaze pensively at the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas, a famous set of fountains that move in abstract patterns to music. The film really culminates in this scene: twelve proud professionals watch a Las Vegas spectacle, well aware that they’ve pulled off something every bit as spectacular themselves. I doubt that any recent crime movie has featured such a sentimental moment. The scene might be a little silly, but after having suffered through the enormous post-Tarantino deluge of nihilistic muck, the crime genre could benefit from a little sentimentality.

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