Movie review: 'Ocean's Thirteen'

1½ stars (out of four)

When director Steven Soderbergh says the "Ocean's" films are harder to pull off than his smaller, less starry projects he's not kidding. The proof is "Ocean's Thirteen," a movie that is kidding, or trying to--it does what it can without the benefit of verifiable jokes, outside of an Oprah gag that comes with a nice payoff in the end credits--but offers criminally little in the way of moviegoing pleasure. "You don't do the same gag twice," scolds Don Cheadle's Cockney con man during one scene. "You do the next gag." Good advice. If only someone had taken it.

Like its immediate predecessors and the original 1960 Rat Pack home movie, "Thirteen" is all about maintaining a barely perceptible smirk behind an impassive pose. The line between cool and cold is a thin one, however. Cool isn't the word for "Thirteen"; it's just smug. For a diversion obsessed with the ethos and values of the old Vegas, Soderbergh's latest instead acts as a symbol of the new one: big, expensive-looking and wholly artificial, a product designed to twist your arm and take your money in the name of fun.

This is why we go to the movies, of course, heist films most of all. We love to be taken. Despite the fabulous Saul Bass opening credits and Sammy Davis Jr. singing "Eee-O-11," the Sinatra film relied mainly on its twist ending to mitigate the general air of lethargy. So what do we have with "Thirteen," now that George Clooney, Brad Pitt and the rest of the boys are back in Vegas after the globe-trotting capers of "Ocean's Twelve"?

The screenplay by Brian Koppelman and David Levien tries to get back to basics by getting back to Nevada. Al Pacino is the new adversary, a Steve Wynn-styled resort mogul who double-crosses Clooney's mentor, Elliott Gould (still a bright spot in the franchise), and puts him in the hospital. It's payback time. This time the casino heist involves a faked earthquake, some imperceptibly loaded dice manufactured at a Mexican plastics factory and an adjunct theft of Pacino's coveted diamonds. To facilitate the latter, Matt Damon, sporting a prosthetic beak, puts the smush on Ellen Barkin, Pacino's icy Broad Friday. Early in "Thirteen" she's seen inspecting the flab on one of the cocktail waitresses before firing her for an improper body-mass index, per Pacino's instructions.

So the antagonists are so heartless they put looks before skill? That's … well, that's hypocrisy, considering the film's priorities. You wouldn't notice the vaguely corrupt atmosphere of "Thirteen" so much if the script generated some decent verbal riffs. The only interesting aspect is how openly it covets the old ring-a-ding-ding. "There's a code among the guys who shook Sinatra's hand," Gould tells Pacino early on. Later, Clooney and Pitt--so inhumanly deadpan that they seem to be playing robot impersonators of themselves--stroll near the Bellagio, reminiscing about the Dunes and the good old days. "Thirteen" ends up eulogizing not just Sinatra and company but the new, unimproved Vegas in which it wallows, joylessly. Clooney is the star only by default; he's hardly a dominant figure here. No one is. Yet the alternative never emerges; only seldom do you sense the ensemble gang-comedy vibe the filmmakers had in mind.

Soderbergh often acts as his own cinematographer, working under a pseudonym, and his palette here is positively Aztec: Everyone's hilariously tanned, and the interiors weirdly saturated. Before long you're dying for some exterior shots of a farm or something. Part of the joke in all three varyingly competent "Ocean's" films, the first being by far the best, is that nobody breaks a sweat, ever. The downside of that joke: No one seems to give a flying roulette chip about anything that happens, and while the script sweats to point out the boys are only trying to help their old pal, the heist isn't very interesting, and the wit is strictly confined to composer David Holmes' bossa-techno-nova flourishes. (He has scored all three "Ocean's" films.)

Music has a way of lingering long after a disposable picture fades. When this one's done you're left with the memory not of "Thirteen," or "Twelve" or even "Eleven," but of Mr. Sammy Davis Jr. singing the theme song from the first "Eleven," the one with the Sammy Cahn lyric about a regular guy dreaming of a penthouse and "stacks and stacks of foldin' green." These 13 wouldn't give a guy like that the time of day. They're too busy swanning around like multimillionaires en route to a GQ photo shoot.


'Ocean's Thirteen'

Directed and photographed by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Brian Koppelman and David Levien; edited by Stephen Mirrione; music by David Holmes; production design by Philip Messina; produced by Jerry Weintraub. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:02. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for brief sensuality).

Danny Ocean - George Clooney

Rusty Ryan - Brad Pitt

Linus Caldwell - Matt Damon

Terry Benedict - Andy Garcia

Willy Bank - Al Pacino

Abigail Sponder - Ellen Barkin

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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