Monday, June 11, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

Nostalgia is a fascinating concept, especially when it’s nostalgia for a time I’ve never known. For years, I have felt fairly nostalgic about the late 30s, appreciating the architecture and design and enjoying the books and movies from that time, and wondering if my mindset would not be better suited then. I even listen to “old time radio” broadcasts on XM.

Ocean’s Thirteen promotes the same kind of third-person nostalgia. Of course, the first in the series, Ocean’s Eleven, relied on some feeling of nostalgia for the original 1960 version of the movie, and a good bit of the interest for that movie was to validate the explicit comparison between Frank Sinatra and George Clooney, or the Rat Pack and Brad Pitt, Don Cheadle, and the rest. Clearly, the film worked, but perhaps more as a caper movie than as any sort of homage to the original. But Ocean’s Eleven also relied on the ultimate coolness of Las Vegas, where everything is bigger than life. Ocean’s Twelve was something of a letdown, in good part because it traveled all over Europe, getting away from the big lights and glitz and the surreality of Vegas. As recompense, it offered up some cameos that were cute, but the movie was missing its biggest character, Vegas itself. Ocean’s Thirteen returns home, as it were, and effective writing and stylistic choices elicit the feelings of nostalgia for the 60s. Unlike the Austin Powers movies, which mocks and parodies the 60s, Ocean’s Thirteen recognizes that in some ways, the 60s were super-cool.

From its very opening, the film uses stylistic choices straight out of the 60s, including music and montage background effects. Every now and again, the cinematography falls back on some 60s device, such as double-imaging and dividing the screen into panels separated with heavy black lines. The hotel in which the caper is supposed to take place is heavily decorated in retro, so that nearly almost every scene in it evokes that 60s kind of feel. Even the ancillary locations have that same sort of décor, including the bedroom of Reuben Tishkoff (played by Elliot Gould), where he lies recovering from a heart attack brought on by the financial wrangling that Al Pacino’s Willie Bank uses to ruin him. It is here that Danny Ocean’s gang has gathered to plot their revenge on Banks.

It is also here that something special happens between the characters. In the earlier movies, there is only the bond of doing a job together that unites them. But in this case, one of their own is in trouble, and the players are no longer lone wolves. We see them as a family, squabbling amongst themselves surely, but united for common cause not to make money, but to avenge one of their own. And it is this interaction which most heavily connects them to the Rat Pack—another family of legendary status. In a scene that sets both the tone and plot of the movie, upon learning he has been broken, Gould tells Pacino “But we’ve both shaken Sinatra’s hand. There’s a bond there.” Pacino’s Bank sneers, underestimating the value of such a bond. Danny Ocean and his gang never forget.

This is not to say that the film is just a nostalgia trip. There is, of course, the caper to pull off, and the film follows the formula, showing the audience a good deal of the caper, but holding some things back for the twist at the end. The twist in Ocean’s Thirteen is relatively minor and I saw it coming a mile away, but it was still fun seeing it pulled off.

Of some concern here is Ellen Barkin, playing Al Pacino’s confidante/major domo. Mrs. Speculator pointed out after the film that the role was superfluous since Willie Bank did everything for himself. In fact, her character is worse than superfluous; she’s a plot device. The final twist relies on the gang getting into a super-secret highly secure chamber. The only people with access to this chamber are Pacino and his aide, and we know Pacino is not going to let anyone in. So Barkin is seduced into it, and a fine actress is reduced to the role of a prop. (Ironically, when crunch time comes, suddenly a lot of people are able to get in the super-secure room, but that is glossed over as the film careens to its satisfying conclusion.)

The last few scenes feature some hugger-mugger between Danny Ocean and Willie Bank about why Bank is not going to turn Danny and his crew in. There’s very little logic to the rationale Danny gives, but that’s not really the point. The point is Danny’s cool and he has just put Bank in the position where he has to be very uncool if he turns the gang in. And of course, cool is what it’s about in Vegas, up there in the stratosphere of people who have amounts of money we can only dream of. And like the popular girl in high school, Bank decides appearing cool is more important than anything else. And speaking of cool, there are a couple of interesting scenes as Danny and the boys are exposed to maudlin episodes of Oprah. The resulting wetworks are funny, as are the conversations around them. But I couldn’t get past the feeling that the only value it really adds to the movie is a guarantee of free advertisement when Oprah invites the stars to her show.

Nevertheless, the boys and their movie succeed. There is a strong rapport between the actors, especially Clooney and Pitt. There is not a lot of action, but the scenes are smart and witty, and the movie isn’t just fun. It’s cool. And at the end you want to be cool enough to hang out with these guys. The one thing that I’d like to do is see the original Ocean’s Eleven to see how cool it was. And, for light summer fare, and if the same writing team pulls it together, Ocean’s Fourteen sometime in the future wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

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