The House Always Wins
Lowest Common Denominator-ism writ large and engraved in stone like the Ten Commandments according to Cecil B. DeMille, the Hollywood blockbuster is often an allegory for itself. Walt Disney, the notoriously litigious studio that successfully changed the nation's copyright laws to protect its trademark Mickey Mouse but more recently declared, "We understand now that piracy is a business model," grosses over $400 million with the third edition of a movie celebrating the lifestyles of the weird and buccaneerish.
Pirates of the Caribbean effectively glamorizes piracy. Similarly, Ocean's Thirteen, Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney's latest remake of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack Vegas caper, the essence of curdled ring-a-ding-ding, is the surest bet in showbiz. It's a spectacle blatantly predicated on a smug gaggle of megastars in boss threads ostentatiously having fun by pretending to steal the house's money, while actually taking yours. See it if you must, but don't forget to pack the Air Wick. These breezy doings are mustier than a Glitter Gulch casino at 4 a.m.
The party opens with Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) summoned to meet Danny Ocean (Clooney) on a private plane to Vegas. It's an emergency mission of mercy. The gang's guru turned mascot Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) is in the hospital recovering from a coronary precipitated by the double-dealing treachery of his erstwhile partner, another venerable Vegas operator with the colorful moniker Willie Bank (Al Pacino). How could the hand that once "shook Sinatra's" backstab a fellow pioneer like Reuben, so old school they named a deli sandwich after him?
The scene uniting former maniacs Gould and Pacino is not without its autumnal poignancy California Split on a Dog Day Afternoon. Not so, the Ocean's Thirteen premise. The plan is to avenge Reuben by preventing Willie's new super-duper deluxe hotel, the Bank, from getting a Five-Diamond rating while rigging the slots, dice, cards, and roulette wheels to drive the establishment into bankruptcy on opening night. It's kind of a benefit, and reprising his antagonistic role as the victim of Ocean's Eleven and nemesis of Ocean's Twelve, Andy Garcia drops in to provide the necessary financing.
Garcia's greedhead aside, the Thirteen who include, as usual, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Shaobo Qin, and as the senior shtick artist, Carl Reiner are closer at heart to the Justice League of America than to Sinatra's larcenous band of brothers (even if, to paraphrase Variety on Ocean's Twelve, it's a case of the rich stealing from the richer to give to the richest). There's even a hint of social criticism: Buying off a factory of Mexican workers is the cheapest part of the operation.
Clooney's Ocean is less the military leader Sinatra pretended to be, than the movie's genial host. Slumming in the role of sidekick number one, Pitt, who only has a handful of lines, mainly stands around with his arms folded. Given that Ocean has evidently re-divorced or otherwise contractually forgotten the character played in the previous movies by Julia Roberts, Ellen Barkin is the lone woman onscreen (save for a couple of televised Oprah cameos). She exists largely as the butt of Damon's seduction.
Working against the underdeveloped notion of a security system outfitted with artificial intelligence, the Oceaneers engineer a monumental opening-night disaster, complete with faux earthquake. The logistics of this scheme are often tedious predicated as they are on the substitution of bonhomie for suspense and the movie ends perfunctorily with Sinatra warbling, "This town is a lonely town." His subject may be Vegas but the sentimental denunciation of a "use-you, abuse-you until you're down town" is surely meant to mock Hollywood: "It's a miserable town . . . a nowhere town . . . You better believe that I'm leavin' this town."
Sure you are. Good night and good luck. Ostensibly, Ocean's Thirteen is that which enables Soderbergh and Clooney to make their personal projects and, as such, it's not without a splash of ironic self-awareness. "You don't run the same gag twice you run the next gag," Ocean, straight-faced, explains to his cohorts.
Basically, Ocean's Thirteen is a meta-caper underlying all the riffs is the identification of conning with acting. The real question is: How many times can Soderbergh and Clooney pull off this same stunt?
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