In Ocean’s Eleven, the director, Steven Soderbergh, stages some of the cheekiest, and also the most elegantly complicated, tricks ever seen in a heist film, and he’s in such relaxed, exhilarated command of his medium that he barely works up a sweat. He appears to be having the time of his life, and so does everyone in the cast; so, I suspect, will the audience. ”Ocean’s Eleven” has no pretenses, yet it’s a scrumptious and dizzy-spirited lark, a what-the-hell-let’s-rob-the-casino flick made with so much wit and brains and dazzle and virtuosity that the sheer speed and cleverness of the caper hits you like a shot of pure oxygen. Soderbergh, after the impassioned socio-domestic panorama of ”Traffic,” now goes in the opposite direction, crafting a cinematic layer cake of sheer sugar-high escapism. Once again, he shot the movie himself, and the result of this unusually up close and personal mode of directing is that his actors, even in their most tossed-off moments, come across with a vibrant immediacy that seems to emerge from the very grace notes of their personalities. For all the relationships on screen, their real chemistry is with us.
Soderbergh, remaking the popular but weirdly half-baked 1960 Rat Pack buddy movie, has thrown out just about everything but the story’s skeletal outline, refashioning the characters and, more than that, kicking the elaborateness of the heist up several notches (in the original, it was slackville). There’s one way, though, that ”Ocean’s Eleven” owes a crucial debt to its source: The new film, too, offers up the spectacle of underworld camaraderie as a vogue projection of high masculine style. As Danny Ocean (George Clooney), an ex-con and professional thief, assembles 11 motley cronies to rip off an underground vault linked to a trio of Las Vegas hotel casinos (the MGM Grand, the Bellagio, and the Mirage), he’s a man with a mission, but he’s far too suave to value victory over swagger. The movie takes its cue from his underhandedly sexy, no-fuss attitude of bemused nonchalance.
Clooney, a compulsive charmer, doesn’t, at a glance, do anything that he hasn’t done before, but he polishes his playful ironic twinkle to such a delectable gloss of hipster savvy that he seems to be redefining cool for the new millennium; he makes cool cool again. What is cool? In ”Ocean’s Eleven,” it’s mastering the boggling tactical safeguards of a corporate casino from the inside out; it’s saying everything on your mind but what you actually think; it’s staging the perfect crime as a pure throwaway, getting high on grace under pressure.
Danny has a hidden agenda: His ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), is the girlfriend of the cutthroat casino owner, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), and Danny is eager to win her back. Clooney and Roberts forge a feisty bond, but the beauty of the movie is in the way that Danny stages the entire heist as an act of seduction, not so much penetrating the casino as tenderly undressing its operations. As he fills his men in on the fortress they’re up against (video-surveillance cage, laser-studded elevator, fingerprint IDs, Uzi-wielding guards — and how in God’s name do you get out once you’ve nabbed the cash?), the mission is so farfetched as to be tantalizing, and Soderbergh gives the action a hotfooted zing by revealing the details of the plan only as it unfolds right in front of us.
In just about every heist film, from ”Rififi” to ”The Score,” there’s an elaborate centerpiece sequence in which the gang executes some madly impossible feat in order to break through a six-foot steel door or a nuclear security system; at that moment, the film inevitably stops in its tracks and says, in essence, ”Ooooh, look at this!” ”Ocean’s Eleven” has more of these audacious gambits than just about any heist film you could name, yet the fun of the movie, and also its slyboots joke, is that the more fantastically elaborate the logistical ruse, the more casual the film is about showcasing it. The tricks interlock in prankish, split-second ways, whether it’s the crusty old Jewish pro (Carl Reiner) doing Euro-aristo shtick in order to worm his way into the cage, the pint-size Chinese acrobat (Shaobo Qin) leaping backward over the vault’s electronic alarm floor, or Matt Damon, as a Ripleyesque pickpocket, getting into a riotous staged racial conflagration with wily blackjack dealer Ber-nie Mac. Brad Pitt, as Ocean’s right-hand captain, does hilariously poker-faced Zen response lines, always coughing them out a beat quicker than you expect.
Soderbergh, who has the wizardly, off-kilter mind of a delinquent physics professor, has mastered the art of making the impossible look easy. He steeps ”Ocean’s Eleven” so thoroughly in the age of advanced technology that the film, in effect, comes out the other side of that era. Even when it’s catching us up in the tactical intrigue of how, exactly, to break into a vault that’s more obsessively guarded than Fort Knox (one bit of advice: Bring batteries), we’re invited to take the gimcrackery for granted. It wouldn’t be wrong to call ”Ocean’s Eleven” a trifle, but it’s a debonair trifle made with high-wire effrontery, the kind that can’t be faked. This giddy and glancing charade is one of the most sheerly pleasurable movies to come out this year, and it cements Soderbergh’s status as the reigning artist-entertainer at work in Hollywood today.