Models Who Serve

| 11 Nov 2014 | 01:37

    Ocean’s Thirteen Directed by Steven Soderbergh

    After last year’s B&W film noir pastiche, The Good German—one of the most excruciating movies ever made—Steven Soderbergh owed the world an entertainment. So what does he do? Rehashes his least imaginative hit with Ocean’s Thirteen.

    In this latest all-star caper movie (and the third remake of his career, counting the execrable Solaris and Traffic), Soderbergh confirms his allegiance to the corrupt Hollywood system. No longer just an indie darling as he was praised with his 1989 debut sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh has followed the typical path of penitent revolutionaries.

    Ocean’s Thirteen certifies his yuppie transition from unpredictable upstart to hipster. This isn’t exactly a shock: sex, lies and videotape was bourgie enough to have been a low-budget caprice by Sydney Pollack. Like Pollack, Soderbergh here features big-name movie stars to push an elaborate but tired plot. Ocean’s Thirteen’s heist story uses stardom for a conventional Hollywood swindle—just another product peddling sleek mischief.

    George Clooney’s back as cool dude Danny Ocean and Brad Pitt returns as trusty Rusty Ryan; they plot revenge against a venture capitalist shark named Bank (played by Al Pacino). Bank has cheated Ocean’s aged buddy Reuben (Elliott Gould) out of a Vegas casino deal. Ocean calls his crooked friends together to ripoff Bank’s massively secured gambling den and steal his prized jewel collection. Ocean’s gang increases its number when the victim of their first heist, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), can’t resist the thieving party.

    An errant hint of morality occurs in this crime spree when Ocean’s gang discusses the hiring practices of Bank’s assistant, an aging sexpot named Abigail Sponder (Ellen Barkin), who coldly dismisses waitresses less taut and tanned than herself. Sponder dodges labor laws by re-naming the position “models who serve.” It’s a curious designation since Soderbergh treats his cast of tabloid stars as Models Who Serve. Their purpose is to glamorize Vegas luxe and greed.

    Pacino’s the most forceful actor present, a powerhouse among lightweights, yet even he is diminished, portraying a bumptious Mr. Big. Soderbergh confuses Pacino’s energy and talent with mere charisma; he assumes that the sexual appeal of smirky Ocean and his incessantly pranks-playing gang is irresistible. It’s perfect irony to watch this cast of famous, crusading liberals try to make underhandedness and dishonesty charming.

    Soderberg’s trickery recalls the miscalculation that scuttled The Good German. Attempting to redefine Hollywood’s post-war romance genre, Soderbergh couldn’t see that Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Toby Maguire were playing hideously unsympathetic characters; he replaced the once clearly understood morality of WWII dramas with contemporary political cynicism and personal sentimentality. Now, Ocean’s Thirteen celebrates the treachery of thieves who consider themselves rebels.

    In terms of genre, Soderbergh activates the same dumbness reflex that worked for that lousy 1973 Oscar winner The Sting. It’s supposed to be fun seeing robbers outwit each other—and Soderbergh hides the basic immorality with too-cute subplots: Scott Caan and Casey Affleck get involved in a south-of-the-border labor strike, Don Cheadle invokes Chuck Berry in a scene about an indie entertainer demanding to be paid, Matt Damon seduces Barkin. Meanwhile, Clooney and Pitt strut around Vegas, pausing briefly to cry at a schmaltzy Oprah Winfrey charity broadcast. These stunts distract from the heist’s small-minded, self-serving mission.

    Danny Ocean’s mean little motivation sours the theory of vicarious pleasure. Soderbergh treats the moviegoing public like media shills who care deeply about Pitt-Clooney’s celebrity club. And, sure enough, some in the audience chuckled throughout, content to bask in all that egotism and wall-to-wall grinning. (Clooney’s Ocean boasts that the criminal underworld simply likes him better than Bank.) There’s no suspense; it’s like a Guy Ritchie movie with ADHD.

    Soderbergh fills out the running time with lazy, smug banter and split-screen montages of extraneous stuff—even Sumo wrestling! The weak narrative structure is camouflaged with lounge music, splashy title cards and dollar-sign f/x floating over the heads of casino winners. The crass artifice recalls Richard Shepard’s The Matador but there the exaggerated fun led to an expose of moral vacancy. Soderbergh’s idea of fun includes doing his own photography (under the name Peter Andrews), continuing Traffic’s insipid color fields, here made video-fuzzy. What Soderbergh thinks is “style” looks like a travelogue advertising Hell.