THE BACK PAGES

Laughing all the way to the bank

'Ocean’s Thirteen’ lights up the casino and delivers ’70s style sans substance

BRIAN D. JOHNSON June 11 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Laughing all the way to the bank

'Ocean’s Thirteen’ lights up the casino and delivers ’70s style sans substance

BRIAN D. JOHNSON June 11 2007

Laughing all the way to the bank

film

'Ocean’s Thirteen’ lights up the casino and delivers ’70s style sans substance

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Steven Soderbergh was a 26-year-old film geek when he came to Cannes in 1989 with his first feature, sex, lies and videotape. This low-budget miracle won the Palme d’Or and triggered a new movement of indie filmmaking. Rekindling the spirit of the New Wave, it proved that an unknown director could throw four unknown actors into a room with a great script and hit on a winning combination. Last week, playing for far bigger stakes, Soderbergh was back in Cannes, launching Ocean’s Thirteen with an armada of Hollywood stars—and proving that, with a mediocre script, you can put George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in a lavish Vegas casino built on a huge soundstage, and hit the jackpot.

The film geek now gets to hang out with the cool kids. But as a child of the New Wave, Soderbergh clings to his roots, and juggles commercial projects with risky experiments such as The Good German. And even with Ocean’s, he can’t help throwing some wild curves into the formula. With a jazzy colour scheme, split screens, and a fetish for groovy gizmos, this 21st-century blockbuster looks like movie from the late ’60s or early ’70s. And for North American filmmakers climbing the red staircase in Cannes—from the Coen brothers to Denys Arcand—that era still represents a watershed. Even those too young to have lived through it can see that it was a rare moment: with landmarks like Easy Rider, Blow-Up, Midnight Cowboy and Mean Streets, the mainstream and the avant-garde were briefly one and the same.

Now Hollywood confections and “serious” films are worlds apart, with almost no middle ground. When I questioned Soderbergh about this in Cannes, he was a tad defensive: “We’re

only partly in control of that. You can make a film that’s going to bridge that gap. But if it isn’t well reviewed, and people don’t show up, people aren’t going to see very many of them. So it’s not as straightforward as you might think, making a movie that’s commercial and has some substance to it.”

Of course, an insouciant lack of substance is the entire appeal of the Ocean’s franchise. Ocean’s Thirteen brings the boys back to Vegas, where they target a new casino called the Bank, the pride and joy of a slimeball named Willie Bank (Al Pacino). Their motive is revenge—Bank has double-crossed their old mentor (Elliott Gould). So they set out to bankrupt his casino on opening day with myriad scams, such as doctoring dice, fixing slot machines—and using the drill that carved the Chunnel to simulate an earthquake that will cripple the security system’s artificial intelligence.

With so much plot whizzing by, and so many stars to showcase, there’s little time for relationship, or close-ups. Pacino never really sinks his teeth into the scenery. The best scenes feel incidental—like a penthouse tango between a casino cougar (Ellen Barkin) and a Don Juan who cons her with an aphrodisiac (Damon). But the real bank being hit in this sequel is Hollywood. It’s as if Soderbergh, Clooney and their Brad Pack are amusing

themselves at the expense of the studio and the audience, which are both happy to be taken for a ride. Ocean’s Thirteen is like a clean, high-tech casino where everyone goes home a winner. And where else can you see such a fine pageant of Hollywood pretty boys? It’s like a live-action issue of Vanity Fair.

In Cannes, however, the lost promise of the New Wave surfaced in some films that pushed beyond style. With No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers have finally grown up. Breaking their habit of flippant irony for its own sake, they’ve made a contemporary western that sets out as a pulp thriller, then darkens into an epic meditation on vengeance in America. With Days of Darkness, Denys Arcand frames a withering satire of Quebec bureaucracy, reviving the motif of shoddy concrete that he first introduced in 1973’s RéjeannePadovani. With Persepolis, a triumph of punk animation, Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi dramatizes her coming of age in Iran amid the 1979 revolution and war with Iraq. And 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a harrowing tale of backroom abortion, does for late Communist Romania what The Lives of Others did for Stalinist East Germany—taking audiences far, far away from the chandeliered world of Ocean’s Thirteen, and the French Riviera. M

ON THE WEB: For more Brian D. Johnson, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca / briandjohnson.