Film: Stylishness and Its Discontents

A lot of folks were surprised when Steven Soderbergh, the hot American director of the moment, chose to follow up Traffic, perhaps the most critically acclaimed film of 2000, with a remake of Ocean’s Eleven, among the least critically acclaimed films ever made. Whether or not you remember the original—and there’s no earthly reason why you should—you’ve probably already read more than you ever wanted to know about it. I’ll try to keep it short. All you really need to know is that back in 1960, Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack buddies decided to make a movie to give themselves something to do between drinks. The result was a caper flick of near-stupefying lameness.

So why on earth would Soderbergh want to make an all-star casserole out of this stringy old turkey? A number of critics who need to get lives have instead been spinning elaborate theories about his auteurial intentions. I do have a life, and I’m puzzled by those who think him a major filmmaker. As it happens, I’m a great admirer of two of his recent films, Out of Sight (1998) and The Limey (1999). In neither case, however, did Soderbergh write the script, and the first was adapted from a crime novel by Elmore Leonard. Nor did he write Erin Brockovich (2000) or Traffic—or, for that matter, Ocean’s Eleven. The only movie that he has written completely on his own is Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), his first feature and one of the few Soderbergh movies that isn’t a genre film of one sort or another. Moreover, Ocean’s Eleven, Traffic, and The Underneath (1994) are all adaptations of preexisting films or TV shows.

All this suggests the definite possibility that Soderbergh doesn’t have anything of his own to say. To be sure, he has a fabulous eye (he shot Traffic himself, using a handheld camera), as well as a strongly individual approach to the visual grammar of cinematic storytelling. But most of his films have been exercises in style, movies about movies. It’s a quintessentially post¬modern strategy, and one that points directly to the defect of most post-modern art, which is that its makers know a lot about art but less about life.

Even the coolly evocative Sex, Lies and Videotape seems to float in a peculiar void inhabited not by people but by images. Therein lies the point of this excellent movie: The mysterious antihero is impotent and is only aroused by watching videotapes of other people talking about sex. But having envisioned this arresting metaphor for the spiritual emptiness of postmodernism, Soderbergh seems to have forgotten his own moral in subsequent films. Given a genre-based premise and a good script, he can fill the screen with eye-catching pictures that flow together in a nervously compelling way, and in one other movie, The Limey, he makes them add up to something moving as well. But the emotional force of this one picture makes all the others look slick, even Out of Sight, which was as solidly entertaining as any American film of the 1990s.

Measured against that platinum yardstick, Ocean’s Eleven comes up short, which may explain why it was more commercially successful than Out of Sight: It’s easier. You had to pay attention to Out of Sight—the narrative was broken up by the back-and-forth twitches in time that used to be Soderbergh’s trademark—and Scott Frank’s screenplay wrung unexpected freshness out of the all-too-familiar lady-cop-chases-handsome-robber plot. (Actually, it’s Elmore Leonard who deserves the credit, since the script follows his novel closely, but any filmmaker who can put a good book on the screen without rendering it unrecognizable deserves his fair share of praise, too.)

Not so Ocean’s Eleven, which has the formulaic air of an expensive meal at a chain restaurant. Sure, it looks great, and for the most part, it’s acted to the hilt, too, with George Clooney taking top honors as Danny Ocean, the ex-con who decides to knock over three Las Vegas casinos in order to win back his ex-wife. That’s the Frank Sinatra part, and Clooney nails it to the wall without breaking a sweat. Of course he’s playing George Clooney, but that’s what virtually all name-above-the-title movie stars do: It isn’t really acting, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s who they are or seem to be—that makes us want to see them, like going back repeatedly to a favorite dish. (He’s much better than Sinatra, who really could act whenever he took the trouble, but almost never did.) Julia Roberts plays the ex-wife, and not very interestingly, either. Similarly dull is Brad Pitt, of whose prettiness I am reliably assured by susceptible friends but who has nothing else going for him. The smaller parts, though, are all dead-on, especially a pair of over-the-top cameos by Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner.

What’s missing from Ocean’s Eleven is a sense of commitment, even the arbitrary commitment of a piece of pure entertainment. We never spend enough time with any of the characters to get to know them: They are stick figures, hasty pencil sketches, and nothing they do or say makes us want either to root for them or hope they get caught. Moreover, the Clooney-Roberts subplot (she’s going out with the owner of the casinos that Clooney and his colleagues are knocking over) smacks of first-degree cynicism. Ted Griffin, who wrote the screenplay, knew he had to supply some kind of dramatic conflict to keep the plot going, but this one is too artificial even to suffice as a formal contrivance, and there isn’t enough on-screen chemistry between Clooney and Roberts to compensate for the inherent implausibility of their relationship.

Of course, a caper movie doesn’t have to be plausible, but if it lacks dramatic motivation, then it must get by on charm, another commodity in which Ocean’s Eleven is lacking. Good actors need good lines, and this is a film in which nobody says anything memorable. Even when judged by the modest standards of the contemporary buddy movie, the repartee between Clooney and Pitt is strangely flabby.

What’s to like? Not much. Soderbergh stages each scene with a juggler’s deftness, locking together the complicated details of the actual robbery as if it were a big-budget ballet (it’s by far the best part of the film) and sprinkling in bits and pieces of knowing cinematic parody along the way, but never taking any chances. It speaks volumes that the stuttering jumps in chronology that added energy to Out of Sight and The Limey have been jettisoned in favor of the smooth, sequential linearity of a well-made Hollywood movie. You keep on watching because you paid your money, enjoying what there is to enjoy—mostly Clooney and feeling mildly entertained. But that’s just about all there is to say about Ocean’s Eleven, and it isn’t even close to enough.

In the end, what Steven Soderbergh has given us is a children’s movie disguised as a piece of adult entertainment. Given the choice, I’ll take the real thing any time. Monsters, Inc., for example, was made with at least as much visual imagination as Ocean’s Eleven, plus a thousand times more heart. Digital animation tends to be cold, but the folks at Pixar (makers of Toy Story) have a singular ability to enliven its chilly vistas. The script is clever and funny, the voices well-chosen and well-directed—especially Steve Buscemi as an unscrupulous chameleon—and while it’s my duty to note for the record that Randy Newman’s theme song is a shameless plagiarism of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair,” I loved everything else about Monsters, Inc. Forget Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Monsters, Inc. is the movie to see on that rainy Saturday afternoon when the kids are threatening to huff and puff and blow the house down.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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