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He did it his way

Steven Soderbergh is an interesting director who just keeps getting more interesting. After the attention-grabbing debut of Sex, Lies and Videotape, he nearly threw it all away with Kafka and the glorified home-movie Schizopolis. Just as Soderbergh was being dismissed as someone who had failed to live up to his potential, he bounced back with Out of Sight, a romantic crime drama that helped George Clooney make a successful transition from television to cinema — and proved to Hollywood that Soderbergh the hired gun could be as effective as Soderbergh the eccentric independent.

Making a quick diversion into the fascinating neo-noir of The Limey, with Terence Stamp, Soderbergh then hit the movie-going world with a double whammy: Erin Brockovich, which proved Julia Roberts could really act, and the multi-layered drug saga Traffic. Moreover, the last two came out in the same year and Soderbergh got Oscar nominations for best director for both, ultimately winning for Traffic — quite a feat, in that the Soderbergh vote was in danger of being split between the two movies, and he was up against Ang Lee for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Soderbergh is now one of Hollywood’s favourite directors — and not just because he brings projects in under budget and on time. Clooney and Roberts were clamouring to work with him again, and stars such as Brad Pitt and Matt Damon were lining up to be in one of his movies. Well, everyone was lining up to be in one of his movies. So what better idea than to make an ensemble picture, and a fun one at that — a remake of Ocean’s Eleven, the 1960 caper flick set in Las Vegas and starring Frank Sinatra and friends.

And isn’t it just like Soderbergh to take what was, by all accounts, a rather limp excuse for Sinatra’s Rat Pack to get paid to swan about their favourite drinking holes, and to turn it into a stylish up-to-the-minute techno-thriller? And, moreover, to make a hit of it?

The Ocean of the title is the Clooney character, Danny Ocean, a criminal just out of jail and ready for one more big heist. In Soderbergh’s movie we see Ocean getting out of prison and being given back what he was wearing when he was taken into custody — a tuxedo. He puts it on without knotting the bow tie, and swaggers out of jail. It’s a lovely, witty detail that is typical of Soderbergh, and sets the tone — sophisticated but louche — as well as making a gesture towards Sinatra and other Vegas performers. (Watch out, too, for Brad Pitt’s wardrobe in the movie.)

With personal as well as professional reasons for setting up the heist, Ocean gathers around him a near-dozen (a thief’s dozen?) fellow robbers. They include cardsharp Rusty (Pitt), pickpocket Linus (Matt Damon) and contortionist/acrobat — yes, they need a contortionist/acrobat — Yen (Shaobo Qin). Don Cheadle, who played a cop in Traffic, distinguishes himself with a bad Cockney accent. Elliott Gould is brilliant as the former casino boss who bankrolls the whole thing — he is vulgar, ostentatious and immensely likeable. In a neat movie in-joke, 79-year-old Carl Reiner, who has been directing and acting since the 1940s, is cast as an old crook enticed out of retirement for one last caper.

Roberts is pretty much the only woman in the picture, and she’s one of the few female actors with the persona and presence to carry it off without being entirely overwhelmed by all that testosterone swirling around her. As Danny Ocean’s ex-wife, she is, of course, luminously beautiful and she can do the cool brush-off with panache. The scenes between her and Clooney have a noticeable crackle — perhaps Soderbergh could add to his very busy schedule a remake of, say, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn’s Bringing Up Baby?

One can’t, and shouldn’t, take Ocean’s Eleven too seriously. It’s no great masterpiece, but it’s stylishly amusing, and, while Soderbergh is willing to pump up the volume with a whole lot of technological trickery and a complex plot, his touch remains determinedly light throughout. These are robbers who do their robbing with smiles on their faces and jokes on their lips. And, while we should really all be getting a bit stern about the idea of glorifying crime, it’s hard not to like them all — and the movie — very much.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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