High rollers

Soderbergh hits the jackpot with hip, funny Ocean's Eleven

Slick, funny, hip. There's not much to complain about in Steven Soderbergh's winking homage to the tongue-in-cheek 1960 Rat Pack heist picture Ocean's Eleven. That is, except for the nagging sense that a man of such enormous talent could be doing something a little more imaginative and meaningful than making self-referentially hip retreads of camp classics for the neo-swinger generation.

Soderbergh is a Howard Hawks for the new age, a man who seems to master any genre he tackles and seems increasingly keen on proving his creative flexibility. But for all his skill and the welcome human element he brings to big Hollywood stories, Soderbergh's personable, incisive vision seems to have diluted and grown a little too slick since his indie beginnings in remarkably eclectic projects like Schizopolis, sex, lies & videotape and King of the Hill.

Soderbergh reassembles the Rat Pack of Sinatra, Martin, Sammy Davis, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop as a Whitman's Sampler of pretty boys, techies, British demolition experts, Chinese acrobats and assorted grifters, including a thankfully low-key Matt Damon. This Ocean's Eleven is led by Danny Ocean (George Clooney), recently sprung from a prison stint in Jersey, and Dusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) as his comrade-in-arms who's itching for a real score.

In the film's funniest moment, experienced crook Ryan has fallen so low he now gives "tough guy" tutorials to teen actors in the back room of a hip L.A. club. He has to instruct the doorpost dumb actors not to let their hands show and how to use the correct poker terminology in a gentle send-up of Pitt's own identity as a pretty boy movie idol with a taste for Fight Club-style slumming.

Ocean and Ryan dig out their criminal Rolodex and start assembling a dream team, the 11 men who will split the million-dollar take from their mega-heist at three Vegas casinos owned by scumbag entrepreneur Harry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who also happens to be courting Ocean's slinky ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts).

What Soderbergh offers in his big, friendly, enjoyable pictures is a sense of warmth and affection for his characters and audience, a rarity in Hollywood. Instead of the ironic distance, sleazy cynicism and often-misanthropic cruelty of a typical Hollywood picture, Soderbergh demonstrates a tenderness toward human nature and a refusal to gag audiences on force-fed messages. Ocean's Eleven is a refreshingly old-school crime film, in which the only violent act is a too-firm handshake, and there is no evidence of the gratuitous nudity and barely cloaked misogyny of big-budget action pictures.

Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven has a clear, genuine fondness for the Vegas ambiance and slouchy insouciance of the original Lewis Milestone film. And, even more admirably, he manages to replicate its brand of tongue-in-cheek cool with his tinkling, lounge-y xylophone music and vintage Elvis tunes, the lazy cool of his protagonists and his ludicrous caricatures. Elliott Gould is representative; as the cash-flush financier of the Big Heist, Ruben Tischkoff wears a star of David the size of a child's liver and lounges about poolside in an open-necked Versace bathrobe.

The heist itself involves penetrating a video game array of lasers and locks and armed guards to get to casino buried treasure. As is par for the course in such films, the criminals are smarter and hipper than their mark. In some regards, Ocean's Eleven feels like Soderbergh's career path apologia, his assertion that it's OK to be greedy — like the Ocean's Eleven posse — as long as you have hip on your side. Andy Garcia as casino owner Benedict is distinctly unhip. A tacky, Trump-like vulgarian in Nehru-collar linen blazers and an emotionless mug who hides the heart of a thug behind the air of a businessman, he is the quintessential 21st-century villain. He is also a particularly greedy developer who demolishes retro Vegas to make way for his gaudier, pretentious version where casinos are decorated with Picassos and Manets acquired by "curator" Tess.

The performances in Ocean's Eleven are solid and engaging, from the nerdy intensity of the gadget-laden criminals with their various sub-specialties to the sparring repartee between Clooney and Pitt. Butch, irreverent, but never cloying, the mano y mano sentiment of the Eleven is balanced by Soderbergh's (too) lingering attention on Ocean's efforts to win back Tess. Played by the warmth-impaired Roberts, that love interest pales in comparison to the chemistry between Ocean and Ryan. The women in such films often feel like a cement weight around the story's neck with their complicated, psychological demands of love and loyalty.

The crooks in Ocean's Eleven don't verbalize such things. In a gorgeous scene of the post-heist team surveying the spewing phallic fountains of the Vegas landscape, their feelings go unspoken. They just know the love is there.??