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Ocean's Commotion

OCEAN'S COMMOTION

"Ocean's Eleven" is the first disappointment of a holiday movie season that's going to see a few more of them before it's over.

Let me rush madly to add that it's nothing if not an enjoyable and winning movie.

The trouble is that it was a truly GREAT idea for a movie - a remake of the Sinatra Rat Pack Vegas mega-heist movie with Steven Soderbergh, no less, overseeing every young actor in Hollywood who might be thought to have some vestige of old-school cool: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia ("this is a drool fest," said a woman I know watching it) and, best of all, Julia Roberts.

Mistake No. 1: Julia Roberts isn't used in the movie as "one of the guys" in the caper but as a romantic object - thief Danny Ocean's gorgeous ex-wife and now the curator of the Bellaggio art museum (surely the oddest art gallery in the Western world) who is hooked up with the vicious casino billionaire who Danny wants to victimize.

This is a case where movie marketing - Julia, dear Julia is presented as just part of the wisecracking, prank-playing atmosphere of high-gloss celebrity at the film's heart - is a whole lot smarter than the movie.

That's not a small mistake, either.

Soderbergh directed Julia dear Julia to her Oscar in "Erin Brockovich" and some of that hard-boiled, "tough-broad" independence as a major part of the crew pulling off the caper would have been reason enough to remake Sinatra's movie.

As most of us who are old enough know, the original wasn't much of a movie. What was cool was its cast and the instant legend of its production.

This is the movie that, as mythology has it, the boys made during the day in Vegas when they were performing there at night. And after that, drinking, wenching and gambling.

At this stage, Sinatra was beginning to set himself up as One-Take Frank, so that the whole idea was that the boys, consummate pros all, could hit their marks, do their lines and adjourn to the golf course.

Let some real pretty-boy actors with their square ambitions worry about 20, 30, 40 retakes of a scene.

These were maharajahs of the nightclub world who thrived on the very clever illusion of sloppy spontaneity. (Isn't it amazing how the lighting man always had a pin spot ready for the exact moment when Dean Martin would hoist Sammy Davis Jr. into the air and say, "I want to thank the NAACP for this award.") .

They wanted low-maintenance acting gigs mostly to celebrate themselves and their reputations and then they wanted the free time to make sure their reputations were well cultivated.

Never mind the overgrown, underworld frat house atmosphere of it all, they were giving the audience what it desperately needed - the idea that some people, at work, were having more fun than 98 percent of their fellow citizens at play.

It was part of the myth that they were actually having it, too.

That "work" was a good deal less spontaneous than it seemed but that didn't make it any less fun. (A great aphorism from Noel Coward: "Work is more fun than fun.") "Ocean's Eleven" was the only way they could think of on a screen to consecrate their newfound fame as Main Street America's Liberationists-in-chief.

It wasn't much of a way but everyone in the audience thought it was cool because the boys themselves were - Frank, Dean, Sammy, and to a lesser extent, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.
That's why the remake promised so much. Wouldn't it be great, we all think, if some of the current screen grandees could loosen up as much in a movie as everyone once wanted Sinatra and the Boys to do?

Not that the new, improved "Ocean's Eleven" doesn't have its droll moments or its abundant pleasures. Strictly as a clockwork caper movie, it's got Lewis Milestone's original beat six ways from Sunday.

And George Clooney and Brad Pitt have a nice way with droll banter, too. They're a long way from Frank and Dean, true, but the effort alone is much appreciated.
Matt Damon is brought along as the kid on the job. Bernie Mac gets to deliver the low-horsepower Sammyesque racial material. ("You won't let me deal the cards! You might as well call it whitejack!")

The plan, this time, is to knock off three casinos on the 3,000 block of Las Vegas Boulevard - the Bellaggio, the MGM Grand and the Mirage. A $150 million score split 11 ways.

Elliott Gould is along as their Vegas money man, Carl Reiner completes the movie's nod to the original's demographic as a con man charged with getting them into the vault.

In the first hour, when everyone is being introduced and is spritzing us with personality, it's almost as cool as it yearns to be. Once Julia Roberts arrives as the romantic object of the caper, it's less cool.

In that respect, it's a bit like watching a TV show in its early weeks. It's always fun, in a TV pilot, to watch the new characters being drawn. But once they are, it's business as usual.

At that point in the movie, only George Clooney and Brad Pitt get any decent lines (though Don Cheadle, as a cockney demolitionist, and Bernie Mac, as the "inside man" get some decent attitude).

Soderbergh made a far better caper film than the original ever was but he seems to have decided early that in the personality department he got the fuzzy end of history's lollipop.

One of the best things about the Rat Pack's unfailingly junky movies is that they gave major evidence that the true repository of cool in the bunch wasn't "chairman" Sinatra but "vice chair" Martin, who, according to his biographer Nick Tosches, really was the group's museum specimen of "menefreghismo" (an omnipresent attitude of "I-don't-give-a-fig").

To that end, it's nice seeing Brad Pitt here keeping up with Clooney cool-by-cool. But, still, you can't disguise what "Ocean's Eleven" is at heart.

The original was a bunch of old pros selling the burgeoning legend of themselves in a marginally competent movie. The new one is a bunch of young pros realizing where their legends stop in a movie that is, sadly, simply too good to be really cool.

MOVIE Review

Ocean's Eleven

3 stars (Out of four)

Rated: PG-13

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

 

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