By Thane Peterson
The holidays are here, and we all should count our blessings. I'm thanking my lucky stars it isn't 1960.
Why? I've just seen the remake of the 1960 movie Ocean's 11 by Steven Soderbergh, one of my favorite directors. It's already a hit, grossing an estimated $39.3 million in its first three days, a record for a December release and enough to push Harry Potter out of the No.1 spot as top grossing picture of the weekend.
Seeing the new Ocean's 11 prompted me to go out and rent a video of the original, the movie that introduced the American public to Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack of hard-drinking show-business pals. That cynical, sloppily made flick made me appreciate Soderbergh's remake even more. I just hope some of the young fans who are flocking to this retro-chic redo -- exit interviews show it's most popular among 25-year-old-and-under women -- take a look at the original. It'll give them a little perspective on the casual racism, sexism, and macho posturing so prevalent in that not-so-long-ago era.
The new Ocean's 11 is pure fun. It's a caper flick about a band of thieves that has the loose, easygoing feel the original movie was supposed to have but didn't: The remake's gaggle of movie stars seem to be getting together to amuse themselves as much as the audience. The many headliners include George Clooney as Danny Ocean (Sinatra's role in the original); Julia Roberts as Tess, his estranged wife; Brad Pitt as Rusty Ryan, Ocean's partner in crime; and Matt Damon as a young kid pickpocket. Yet, despite all the egos involved, Soderbergh manages to give the movie an ensemble feel, just as he did with last year's star-laden Traffic.
The new Ocean's 11 doesn't aspire to much beyond a good time. Soderbergh has said he tried to create "one of those glittering pieces of Hollywood entertainment where you leave the theater not feeling cheated." Held to that standard, it succeeds marvelously. It's a cool, deftly plotted fairy tale based (like the original) on the thin premise that a bunch of guys are going to get together and rob not one but several seemingly impregnable Las Vegas casinos.
In this movie, the targeted gambling palaces are owned by the evil Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) who, it happens, has captured Tess's heart while Ocean was serving time in prison. So, in addition to humiliating Benedict by robbing him, Ocean plans to win Tess back.
You know from the beginning that the heist is going to succeed -- or at least that nothing really bad is going to happen to the thieves -- and that along the way, there'll be a lot of laughs. But the movie never panders to its audience with gratuitous sex or violence. It's a very artfully crafted film with lots of beautiful views of Las Vegas, an intricate plot with the requisite heart-stopping moments, and a nice dose of high-tech wizardry.
Some of the best scenes come during a couple of wonderful character performances by two veteran ham actors. Carl Reiner, who is pushing 80, plays Saul Bloom, a retired con man with ulcers who comes back for one last great scam, masquerading as an arms dealer as part of the casino-heist team. Elliott Gould is also hilarious as Reuben Tishkoff, a hairy chested, cigar-chomping casino owner who bankrolls the robbery. I saw the movie twice this weekend, and both times everyone around me started laughing whenever Gould came on the screen.
Like the original, this Ocean's 11 is full of inside jokes and campy cameo appearances. At the end, Roberts -- one of the biggest movie stars on the planet -- is given the credit, "And introducing Julia Roberts as Tess." At one point, casino mogul Benedict is heard on the phone refusing to ante up tickets to a big prize fight for a "Mr. Levin," presumably Gerald Levin, outgoing CEO of AOL Time Warner. "He can catch it on HBO," the casino owner says. "He of all people must get HBO." (AOL Time Warner, of course, owns HBO and bankrolled the remake.) Cameo players include Wayne Newton and Angie Dickinson (who played Mrs. Ocean in the original movie). Soderbergh himself even does a bit as a bank robber.
Now, stick the original Ocean's 11 into the VCR -- and prepare for a shock. It was made as a sort of a lark to give the stars something to do while they were appearing -- and carousing into the wee hours -- at the Sands Hotel on the Vegas Strip. The actors would sometimes go from their gigs at the Sands to shoot scenes in the middle of the night, staying up past sunrise to do daylight takes. You can almost imagine them -- Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis Jr. -- tired and hungover during the shooting. It shows. None seems to really want to be in the movie.
Women in the original Ocean's 11 are little more than arm candy. One long scene has two blondes more-or-less-wordlessly massaging Sinatra and the bare-torsoed Lawford -- eventually to be dismissed by Sinatra with pats on the bottom and an admonition to "Get lost."
However, the most painful parts to watch now are the ones involving Sammy Davis, whose real-life nickname in the Rat Pack was "Smokey." His apparent overweaning need to be accepted by his white pals seems always to be greeted by scantly veiled racial contempt. Tellingly, while the others cavort in glamorous settings, he plays a garbage-truck driver, and at one point does a song-and-dance routine in a dump.
We tend to look back on the beginning of the '60s through rose-colored glasses. Kennedy had just been elected President, and his Camelot was in full swing. The nation was prosperous and at peace, people smoked and drank with happy abandon. The sexual revolution was just beginning.
In reviving Ocean's 11, Soderbergh does a good thing by only keeping the caper and the fun-loving spirit that was supposed to pervade the original. When you see the 1960 version, you'll realize there wasn't much else worth reviving.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht