Calm, cool waters

It’s safe to wade back in for Ocean’s Thirteen

Mike D'Angelo

So here are Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan, parting ways after yet another larcenous adventure. “Next time, try to keep the weight under control between jobs,” Rusty says to Danny—a jibe that only makes sense if you know and remember that George Clooney packed on 35 pounds for his Oscar-winning role in Syriana a couple of years ago. “Why don’t you have a couple of kids or something?” retorts Danny, alluding to Brad Pitt’s recent gung-ho embrace of fatherhood.

Coy, self-congratulatory “jokes” like these were precisely what made the noxious Ocean’s Twelve feel more like a smug tour of a club’s VIP room than an all-star heist movie. So I’m happy to report that the above exchange, while winceworthy, is only a brief, we-couldn’t-resist lapse. For the most part, Ocean’s Thirteen reverts to the breezy, weightless antics—charismatic men plotting byzantine schemes in exotic locales—that made Eleven such forgettable fun. If Steven Soderbergh were less industrious, I’d be annoyed with him for wasting his talent on such piffle. Given his penchant for bizarre experiments like Bubble and The Good German, however, I suppose he’s earned the right to coast every third movie or so.

As in the first film, our heroes have targeted a fabulous Las Vegas casino—this one owned not by Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict, who’s partially bankrolling the operation, but by a preening, back-stabbing mogul named Willie Bank (Al Pacino, who somehow looks as if he’s constantly chomping on a cigar without ever so much as picking one up). Their objective isn’t quite what you’d expect, though. Ocean & Co. don’t want Bank’s vast fortune for themselves—they’d just prefer that Bank, who’s both humiliated and hospitalized their jovial mentor, Reuben (Elliott Gould), possess a whole lot less of it. Blackjack, roulette, craps, slots—every game in the joint needs to be fixed, on top of which the high rollers must somehow be shoved out the door before they inevitably give all the money back. (Cue the fake earthquake—no kidding.) Most of all, the boys want to ensure that Bank, a raging egotist, fails to receive the resort world’s coveted five-diamond award, which involves planting a phony inspector (Carl Reiner as Saul) while simultaneously making the stay of the real inspector (David Paymer) a living hell.

Needless to say, there are parts to be played by the rest of the team, including Linus (Matt Damon, who spends much of the film wearing a hilarious fake nose), Basher (Don Cheadle, toning down the bad Cockney accent), Frank (Bernie Mac), the Malloy brothers (Scott Caan and Casey Affleck), etc. The greatest screenwriter who ever lived couldn’t create actual characters when forced to divide 120 minutes by 15 actors (including Pacino and Ellen Barkin, who plays Bank’s high-powered assistant), so Ocean’s Thirteen, like Eleven, devotes most of its energy to plot mechanics. Brian Koppelman and David Levien—still best known for penning the cult poker movie Rounders—have dreamed up a number of amusing scams, but their real talent lies in the shrewd way they withhold information, piquing our curiosity by showing us only a small detail at first—Saul tinkering with a device that emits the yap of a lapdog, for example—and thereby making us wonder how that detail will fit into the overall plan.

Still, none of this is ever more than mildly diverting. O13 is ostensibly a film about friendship and loyalty, with Danny and the gang going to extraordinary lengths to avenge poor Reuben; despite a few token bedside promises, though, the emotions involved have to be taken on faith. That’s why by far the funniest subplot in the new film is the one that sees Affleck’s Virgil Malloy, sent to Mexico to doctor the dice at the plastics factory where they’re manufactured, become so genuinely outraged by the shabby working conditions that he foments a proletariat revolution, thus jeopardizing the whole operation back in Vegas. Quickly dispatched to get him under control, his brother Turk (Caan) is next seen on the front lines, lobbing a Molotov cocktail while shouting vague reassurances into a cell phone. It’s a delightfully absurdist twist, the most absurd aspect of which is the very notion that any of the glamorous cartoons who populate the Ocean’s movies could give a damn about anything. Danny solves the problem by simply writing the starving Mexican workers a check. Speaks volumes, doesn’t it?

Ocean’s Thirteen

3 stars

George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Matt Damon, Ellen Barkin, Don Cheadle

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Rated PG-13

Opens Friday

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