Soderbergh’s Soggy Casino Caper Could Use a Few More Dames

sarris oceans131h Soderbergh’s Soggy Casino Caper Could Use a Few More DamesOcean’s Thirteen
Running time 122 minutes
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien
Starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon

For most of the innocent bystanders in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Thirteen, gambling in Las Vegas looks like a win-win proposition. The film, from a screenplay by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, is a preposterous morality tale about 13 guys who are, supposedly, good at heart, despite all their larcenous expertise. Even in today’s misogynistic movie industry, Ocean’s Thirteen is something to behold in the way of glorified guy-guy extravaganzas. Even in its own genre, even in its own series.

And that’s not the worst of it. The two male leads, George Clooney as Danny Ocean and Brad Pitt as Rusty Ryan, are followed around as if they were in-house celebrities. The biggest laugh I heard at the movie-house screening I attended came at the very end of the picture when Danny and Rusty, their mission completed, are saying goodbye. Mr. Pitt tells the almost cadaverous Mr. Clooney not to gain too much weight in the period before their next meeting. Mr. Clooney responds by smilingly advising Mr. Pitt to settle down and have some children. As the audience roared at this “inside” exchange, I wondered if Paris Hilton was going to make a last-minute cameo appearance.

Not that there was much room for females in this virtually all-male enterprise. The once very “hot” Ellen Barkin has been squeezed into a humiliating role as Abigail Sponder, personal assistant to head bad guy Al Pacino’s Willy Bank. At one point the pathetic Abigail is described by another character as “a woman of a certain age.” Long forgotten are the sexual sparks that ignited between Ms. Barkin and Mr. Pacino in Harold Becker’s underrated Sea of Love (1989). Perhaps only the French, alas, could continue to be fascinated by Ms. Barkin’s fabulous legs.

The soggy narrative begins with Elliott Gould’s Reuben Tishkoff being beaten up by Willy Bank’s hoodlums when he hesitates in signing away his partnership in their Las Vegas casino, the Bank. When Danny and Rusty and their buddies learn that Reuben is virtually on life support in a Las Vegas hospital, they come from far and wide to avenge their loyal friend’s brutalization. Among the other members of Ocean’s group are Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon), Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle), Frank Catton (Bernie Mac), Virgil Malloy (Casey Affleck), Turk Malloy (Scott Caan), Livingston Dell (Eddie Jemison), Yen (Shaobo Qin) and Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner).

I may be shortchanging Mr. Damon’s star status, now that he has his own blockbuster Bourne series. But like most of the Ocean collaborators, he spends much of his screen time in disguise. And no wonder. Willy Bank has an artificial-intelligence system providing security for his Ocean-targeted casino. The objective of the good guys is to bankrupt the bad guy by enabling all his customers to come out ahead. To achieve this, Ocean and his pals need a large monetary contribution from a familiar villain figure, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) of Ocean’s Eleven and Twelve, who drives such a hard bargain that he becomes subject to the costly embarrassment of having to donate $72 million of his ill-gotten gains to a local charity. More raucous laughter.

I must confess that the technical mumbo-jumbo spread among the Ocean crew was more than my Cro-Magnon skull could take in or digest. And for long stretches of the proceedings, Mr. Soderbergh seems to be trying to distract us from the suspenseless inevitability of the plot with semi-abstract rainbowish splashes of color, compliments of his alter-ego cinematographer, Peter Andrews. But distraction is no substitute for distinction, and the intermittently benign artistic influence Mr. Soderbergh has exerted on a philistinishly inclined bottom-line movie industry since he burst upon our consciousness with his first feature film, Sex, Lies and Videotape, in 1989, has suffered a setback with Ocean’s Thirteen or, at most, earned a mixed blessing. After all, even the most productive writer, director and producer in American cinema for the past two decades needs an occasional box-office bonanza to keep the money men at bay.