House of cards

A bunch of jokers play their winning hand.


directed by Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle, and Andy Garcia opens Dec. 7 at Guild 45, Meridian, Oak Tree, and others

UPPING THE ANTE on your average high-tech heist flick, the new Ocean's Eleven remake features not one but two different colors of laser beams guarding the loot. Since the vault in question lies deep beneath three Vegas casinos run by a smooth, nasty tycoon (Andy Garcia), you know the job's not going to be easy. Further complicating the removal of some $163 million in cash is the fact that said tycoon is porking the ex-wife (Julia Roberts) of our ringleader, the suave and self-assured Danny Ocean (George Clooney). So which do these two rivals value more—the money or the girl?

When that choice comes (and Eleven is tightly constructed to guarantee that it does), the moment is caught on casino security cameras that continuously broadcast images both to us and the perps. In tackling and revitalizing a fairly routine theft movie, Steven Soderbergh has seized on the video surveillance screen as emblem for his entire enjoyably sneaky film. (Twelve years after sex, lies, and videotape, and he's still fascinated with the medium's unreliability.) Instead of Traffic's color-coded segments, here his large cast is organized in grainy little monitors, but pictures are deceptive. It's not just the casino owner who gets suckered by the reassurance of an image.

We, too, are seduced as Soderbergh introduces Ocean's gang in a fast, funny montage full of split-screens and wipes. Assembling the team is a staple of cinema, especially in a guys' movie—which Eleven very much is. Thus we meet Ocean's sly lieutenant (Brad Pitt, having fun) as he tutors young Hollywood brats on how to maintain a poker face. (Look for Traffic's Topher Grace in an amusingly chatty cameo.) Pitt and Clooney have the dominant roles in Eleven, and the rest of their crew is rounded out with a computer geek, money man (wonderfully garish Elliott Gould), pickpocket (Matt Damon), con artist (Carl Reiner), explosives guy (Don Cheadle, with a Cockney accent for some reason), 95-pound Chinese gymnast (don't ask), and some idiot twins (Scott Caan and Casey Affleck, hilarious enough to justify a spin-off sequel).

Each actor has only a few seconds to make an impression. Appropriately, then, only Clooney, Pitt, and Roberts are granted full-on, movie-star entrances, and the Oscar winner makes hers the latest and to least avail. Gliding down a staircase in slo-mo dissolves, Roberts may be repaying a favor to her Erin Brockovich director, but the script (not his) isn't offering her much of a role—probably about 10 minutes' worth, in fact.

THE ALL-STAR lineup might've yielded a bloated turkey like Frank Sinatra's 1960 original (see "1960's Eleven," this page), but Soderbergh avoids the first Eleven's pacing pitfalls by launching into the criminal planning as soon as Ocean leaves jail (rather than indulging in endless smokes, drinks, and broads). The heist itself takes up most of the second half of the two-hour movie, so no one will complain about being bored. Yet neither will anyone compliment the depth of characters here, because Soderbergh isn't offering any. Where David Mamet's criminally kindred Heist delves deeper into its (fewer) characters' heads, the superior yet shallower Eleven is content with sketches. (Heist also leaves some gaping plot holes, while Eleven circles back to fill them.)

Throughout, the boys get to play with fake identities, borrowed uniforms, radio-controlled cars, tiny video taps and ear microphones, computer networks, and a mysterious Bondian superweapon with glowing coils housed in bubbling yellow froth. Cool! Which returns us to the laser beams—red and green ones that recall Entrapment and Mission: Impossible among other vault-cracking flicks. Their presence, along with the whole elaborate break-in/getaway scheme, indicates Soderbergh's desire to make Eleven nothing more than feel-good entertainment, a sunnier spin on his noirish 1995 Underneath, where surveillance cameras also framed the robbery.

You could say that Soderbergh's gone mainstream, but true talent, like Hitchcock's, inevitably gravitates toward Hollywood. In that respect, Eleven could be compared to 1955's The Trouble With Harry—light, comic, diversionary, disposable. Soderbergh signals as much with a third-act deployment of Debussy's schmaltzy "Clair de Lune" movement from the Suite Bergamasque: easy listening meets easy viewing.

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