The latest from Steven Soderbergh since he scored the Best Director trophy at the Oscars 2001 for Traffic, aims less for prestige and more for pure escapist entertainment.
In casting the remake of the 1960 Rat Pack casino heist flick, Soderbergh has pulled out all the stops: George Clooney plays heist mastermind Danny Ocean, Brad Pitt his side-kick, Julia Roberts Ocean's ex-wife, and Matt Damon a member of the heist team.
The rest of the cast is filled out with slightly smaller yet recognizable names: Andy Garcia, as the casino owner who stole Roberts away, Elliot Gould as a rival financier and Carl Reiner, Don Cheadle, Eddie Jemison, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner who fill out the eleven.
The early part of the plot unfolds briskly and with just enough humour - it's the rare ensemble movie which lets us know just enough about each character - picking up momentum (with the glaring exception of the love triangle scenes) as the heist sequence draws near. The ending is a bit contrived and hard to follow, but one leaves the film perfectly satisfied.
The performances work well - Clooney (a year after his career-best performance in O Brother Where Art Thou) fits just right into the Sinatra role, and makes a great match with Pitt (let's get those two in a buddy cop movie or something). The heist team has no weak links (although Damon is given very little to do) - standouts include Cheadle as a cockney and Gould as a somewhat inoffensive Jewish caricature.
The only major drawback is the weakness of the love-triangle subplot. In the original picture the Eleven were old Army buddies who needed the money, but the remake is left with no equivalent motive, so the Clooney-Roberts-Garcia triangle is inserted - the Clooney-Roberts scenes don't work, and the segment's resolution is pretty unbelievable as well. Luckily, it's only a couple of scenes.
Another strength of the film is its excellent photography of Las Vegas. The production somehow obtained permission to both shoot inside actual casinos and use their names for the heist scenes. Soderbergh, as he did on Traffic, serves as his own cinematographer, and gets every shot in the film just right.
Soderbergh's own story is a fascinating one. He arrived on the Hollywood radar in 1989 with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which won the first Sundance Film Festival, but he more or less disappeared until nine years later when he made the critically acclaimed Out of Sight and followed that with The Limey, Erin Brockovich and Traffic (critically and financially successful pictures all) in a span of just over two years.
Ocean's Eleven doesn't rank with his best work, but it's to Soderbergh what Jurassic Park was for Spielberg: he got to make a fun, entertaining picture (in Vegas) without the pressure of having to worry about Oscars, and he's plenty of career left to try to top Traffic and Out of Sight.