Ocean's Eleven Neither Razzles nor Dazzles; The Affair of the Necklace Is a Humorless Class Farce

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Big problem with Ocean's Eleven: it lacks razzle. Steven Soderbergh writes and directs this 12-millionth heist film, knowing we've seen it all before (whether or not we actually have seen the bland 1960 Frank Sinatra rat-pack version), but he adds nothing that makes it genuinely new. None of the assortment of crooks who band together to rob $50 million from three casinos has an interesting or fresh motive. Las Vegas is not observed for its bizarre slice of Americana that even films from Showgirls to Pay It Forward got right.

And Ocean's Eleven doesn't dazzle either. That's primarily because Soderbergh insists on getting his on-the-job training as cinematographer (one of the major faults of last year's Traffic was that Soderbergh?working under the pseudonym Peter Andrews?was responsible for its facile, forgettable look). He ought to reconnect with the good cinematographers Elliot Davis and Ed Lachman who previously gave his films distinction. Davis made Out of Sight iridescent and Lachman made Erin Brockovich subtly vibrant. There's no point in putting together a trivial entertainment like Ocean's Eleven if it doesn't sparkle. It's meant to be a Christmas tree (that is, the actors are merely ornamental) and yet everything in it seems smudged, tired. And that's not because ennui is written into the script. In this pseudo-serious caper flick, Soderbergh maintains a humorless tone that suggests the fun has gone out of the hackneyed genre, deflating each professional player's practiced moves.

The cast?a talk show lineup?has looked better and appeared in more interesting films. In The Peacemaker, Out of Sight and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Clooney showed a feral intensity like the young Clark Gable. Here, he's master thief and ex-con Danny Ocean, without the credible postwar weariness implied by Sinatra's sangfroid and lacking any spunk of Clooney's own. Brad Pitt was terribly sexy in Fight Club, proved he could act in Meet Joe Black and displayed a sense of humor in (forgive me) Snatch. But here, as Ocean's straight man, Pitt's the pits. Matt Damon?rather mature to play the hotshot?has so completely lost his bearings as an interesting New Hollywood force that he spends this whole film looking...lost. (Maybe he just wandered in from the set of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.) Don Cheadle has already worn out the token black guy role (and here must share the dubious honor with the recently tamed Bernie Mac). Nobody expects Andy Garcia to liven up the joint, which means it's predictable (and less than juicy) to cast him as the patsy. Finally Julia Roberts, actually playing the snatch?she's a metaphor for the casinos' vaulted millions, the loot men compete for?has not been lighted so unflatteringly since Mystic Pizza; every entrance she makes looks like a dress rehearsal while waiting for the makeup and killer wardrobe to arrive. This entire convocation?intended to make Ocean's Eleven a hot ticket?is so dull, so box-office unfriendly, it's a wonder it doesn't star Robert Redford. Honestly, does anybody want to see the stars of The Perfect Storm, The Talented Mr. Ripley, When a Man Loves a Woman and The Mexican?

I've taken to deriding Ocean's Eleven because there's no other way to fight an example of Hollywood decadence this enormous, this unambitious, this arrogant. Only when you step back from the hype?the media's attempt to justify the film's useless appearance in the culture?can you realize that Ocean's Eleven was a movie that should never have been made. Its "importance" at this moment is simply the public relations illusion that it is something unique or?and this is the biggest hoax?that it has any legitimate claim on the public's attention. Until recently, with the modest popularity of Mulholland Drive and The Man Who Wasn't There, the year's most interesting films have not been hits. Hollywood?and the independents?seemed not to know how to intrigue audiences. A blockbuster like Shrek or Harry Potter seems the result of parental intimidation rather than proof that the movies spoke to some feeling in people. This distortion of popular culture happens when filmmakers lose confidence that their work means anything to anyone outside their private list of beneficiaries; and it continues when audiences, no longer requiring movies to be relevant, are satisfied with mindless escapism.

It doesn't take a terrorist attack to destroy culture-makers' confidence; the crisis behind Ocean's Eleven probably goes back to Titanic and The Blair Witch Project?events that rattled concepts of entertainment and cinema. A thoughtful, once-struggling filmmaker like Soderbergh might, understandably, be expected to give up in the face of charlatans and amateurs, sinking ships and debased documentaries. But you don't expect him to give in. (What a disappointment that after years of brave, un-modish work, Soderbergh has revealed himself to be, at heart, a Hollywood hack.) Soderbergh has not updated Ocean's Eleven to reflect the pre-9/11 circumstances of a society whose citizens lack a purpose beyond self-gratification. This adaptation seems to be a naked example of self-gratification?and foolish, post-Oscar self-congratulation. Where Sinatra's rat pack stood for something (however trivial during its time), they still exuded force of personality, style and an air of experience. Ocean Eleven's many drab star turns feature actors flashing their celebrity instead of portraying the condition of modern Americans obsessed with money. (Only Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner, in small roles, manage actual characterizations, but they're quickly shunted aside.) We're expected to fawn over the bland Big Names with their billboard-sized winks but the only real joke in Ocean's Eleven is that each one of its stars has already peaked and will be?a few more bombs on the resume?on their way to Hollywood's black hole.

A contemporary star caravan that mattered would have had none of these people. Imagine instead Ryan Phillippe, Terrence Howard, Gabrielle Union, Julia Stiles, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Vin Diesel being cast to embody the modern hedonist temper, today's go-getter mood. Their casino robbery?and insider's con job?might have seemed authentic rather than rote. But Soderbergh doesn't even muster the sense of play that was the redemptive element of Love, Honour and Obey, an oddball British gangster film?just possibly the only good gangster musical comedy?that quickly vanished from theaters earlier this year. It depicted a boys' club of mobsters coping with gutsy wives and mirror-image rivals. Director-writers Dominic Anciano and Ray Burdis concocted a musical revue that exposed the masculine narcissism infecting all recent crime fiction from The Usual Suspects to The Sopranos?only it was better. The hugely likable cast included Ray Winstone, Jonny Lee Miller, Jude Law, Rhys Ifans, Kathy Burke and Sadie Frost, all introduced at a karaoke bar, linking their social aspirations to a shimmering pop ideal. It was like SCTV with a neo-glam rock score (Noel Gallagher's "Force of Nature") but above all, it doused a pet genre in a corrosive, satirical bath. Ocean's Eleven fails by keeping Hollywood's status quo.

That wasn't the case with Demian Lichtenstein's 3000 Miles to Graceland (another original comedy-drama from earlier this year), which used a Las Vegas caper to critique new styles of greed and old-style masculine role models. The Kevin Costner-Kurt Russell action film couldn't find its audience either, mostly due to its unorthodox anti-Elvis moralizing, but it was an honorable flop (and a viscerally enthralling film still worth seeking out). Costner's gang of crooks had an ironic phrase?"It's your criminal right!"?that seemed more honest than any of Soderbergh's facetious badinage meant to disguise selfish criminality as cute. Perhaps a culture that dismisses the wit of Love, Honour and Obey and ignores the integrity of 3000 Miles to Graceland deserves no better than this Ocean's Eleven. Now, Moulin Rouge is no longer the year's single most graceless studio release.

The Affair of The Necklace
Directed by Charles Shyer

It takes Hollywood to imagine that the story of Jeanne de la Motte-Valois, a social climber in 18th-century France, provides a worthy perspective on the French Revolution. Jeanne, whose family name had been disposed, schemed to get her title back by indulging various court intrigues, cozying up to and tricking Marie Antoinette. The Affair of the Necklace dramatizes a fabled event leading up to the toppling of France's monarchy, but director Charles Shyer probably intended some parallel to today's sex-and-politics scandals. (His sequel might be The Affair of the Gap Dress.) That might also explain his trendy casting of victim-actress Hilary Swank as Jeanne. Since Boys Don't Cry, Swank has been limited to a masochistic repertoire. Her constantly thwarted Jeanne gets humiliated, knocked down, insulted, degraded and just barely escapes the guillotine before finally gaining (small) revenge as an English exile and author of a tell-all memoir.

Swank evokes pity rather than charm or heroism. Her sunken cheeks, dark eyes and pouty lips take on a wolfish hunger. In some shots, she seems as startlingly avid?as French?as the young Fanny Ardent. Unfortunately, Shyer uses that same flat, elitist Merchant-Ivory formula, convinced that elaborate costumes and a few actors with British accents make an irrelevant tale tolerable. At times The Affair of the Necklace suggests a story that the legendary boulevardier Sacha Guitry might have used as the basis for a sex farce (like the great comedy epic Pearls of the Crown). Shyer used to be a comedy director but now he's made a punishing, unintentional class farce that never risks a smile.

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