Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: Ocean's Thirteen

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I saw both Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve when they were out in theaters, but somehow Steven Soderbergh's third Ocean's film passed me by when it came out in 2007. Catching up with it now is a strange experience, not only because I had to struggle to remember what happened in the first two movies and triangulate the relationships of the approximately 8,758,759 main characters, but also because, at only three years old, the movie represents what now seems like a quaint and nostalgic vision of Las Vegas and the Strip.

One of the best things about this movie is that it returns to the Vegas setting of the first film, after Twelve found the team of charming thieves jetting off to Europe. And Soderbergh uses Vegas well, making it both glamorous and playful, like a fantasy world but one that has just enough reality in it to seem attainable. The Vegas of this movie was closer to the real world in 2007 than it is now, but of course it was never really the way things are, and Soderbergh makes it beautifully enticing: This is the Vegas I wish I lived in.

It's a Vegas with old-school casino owner-operators, like Andy Garcia's Terry Benedict, who was the villain in Eleven and Twelve and here becomes a reluctant ally to Danny Ocean and his crew as they work to take down another casino mogul, Al Pacino's Willie Bank. Casinos aren't run like this anymore, for the most part, but the image of the larger-than-life personality who has his fingers in every aspect of his property is a quintessential piece of Vegas iconography. Benedict and Bank are each a bit Steve Wynn and a bit Bugsy Siegel, with the best of the classic and modern Vegas eras that Soderbergh uses to create his mythical version of the city.

Because the Vegas of Ocean's Thirteen certainly isn't a retro throwback. It's a technologically sophisticated world, where Willie Bank's casino runs some sort of science-fiction-y artificial intelligence security system and Danny Ocean's crew uses computer algorithms as much as old-fashioned graft to get the access they need to swindle the casino. The movie's Vegas is simultaneously more futuristic and more vintage than the real Vegas, with the best elements of both. But it's also a place of complete hedonism and luxury, a place where millionaires like Benedict and Bank are only worried about losing money if it's being stolen by charismatic criminals. This is a Vegas where new lavish hotels are still being built every day, where land on the Strip is nearly priceless, where hotel occupancy is always at capacity. That's a Vegas I want to live in also, and it's a Vegas that actually did exist just a short time ago.

The movie only works in this version of Vegas; it's hard to imagine an Ocean's Fourteen taking place in the current local economy. The town has to be bursting with prosperity, because we have to root for the main characters to take some of it away. And root we do, as Soderbergh and screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien create a juicy new villain in Bank, who screws over team mentor Reuben (Elliott Gould) and thus must be taken down. So the old gang gets back together (minus Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones' love interests, making this a very testosterone-heavy installment) and plans a different kind of heist, where they make Bank lose money but don't take any of it themselves (they scheme to rig all his games so the house loses massively in a short period of time).

After the self-indulgent, incoherent Ocean's Twelve, Thirteen closes out the series with style, even if the plot still ends up being sort of incomprehensible, and the overstuffed cast makes it hard to keep track of all the characters (the original 11, plus characters added in the second film, plus new characters all vie for screen time). The nice camaraderie between stars George Clooney and Brad Pitt kind of gets lost in the shuffle, but the cast of familiar faces mostly shines with movie-star luminosity, as it should. Not only a swan song for a certain Vegas era, Thirteen also seems to have been a swan song for Soderbergh's big Hollywood period; the features he's made since are all idiosyncratic and experimental, and it's not clear whether he'll return to this sort of populist filmmaking. As an elegy for so much glamour that has since faded, Ocean's Thirteen still retains its luster.

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