With his ambitious but unnecessary remake of Ocean's Eleven, director Steven Soderbergh -- he of rousing crowd-pleasers such as Out of Sight and self-consciously important movies such as Traffic -- takes a peculiar detour through star-studded mediocrity. Scripted by Ted Griffin, the project is most definitely a motion picture about people who team up to steal a lot of money. As such, it's not an unpleasant diversion, but neither is it much of a thrill, summoning, at best, a good-natured shrug.
The movie's hero is Danny Ocean, played in Lewis Milestone's 1960 film by a smarmily charming Frank Sinatra, succeeded here by an adequately charismatic George Clooney. Newly paroled, the determined Ocean decides he must return immediately to the life he knows best -- stealing stuff -- and so sets about combing America to assemble a posse of criminal specialists. Among them are the slumming Hollywood card sharp Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), the nimble Windy City pickpocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) plus eight others, constituting the eponymous 11.
A series of very tidy coincidences allows Ocean the opportunity to redeem his entire life, providing that he properly executes this one big score. It turns out that his ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), has run off to play art curator for the nasty megalomaniac Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), whose iron fist controls three of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas: the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand. It also happens that Benedict has angered aging high-roller Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould), who'd be happy to bankroll a mission against him. Unlike the original Ocean's Eleven, in which the masterminds' tools included phosphorescent paint, errant garbage cans and friends' coffins, this operation does not want for the best available resources.
Joining Ocean for the job are a colorful cast of characters, most of whom seem to believe that exaggerated performances will cover their glaring lack of collective chemistry. There are fun moments to be had with the retired confidence man Saul Bloom (a very enjoyable Carl Reiner) and card-dealing "plant" Frank Catton (Bernie Mac, knowingly reversing the original film's stupid racist jokes), but otherwise it's a clunky ride. The group's munitions expert is played by Soderbergh regular Don Cheadle with an outrageously ill-advised cockney accent, and newcomer Shaobo Qin is allowed to show off his incredible acrobatics but not to interact much with the other boys. Casey Affleck, Scott Caan and Eddie Jemison round out the gang with manic bemusement.
Once everyone is gathered at Tishkoff's, Ocean unveils his plan, spreading out before them documents apparently downloaded from www.blueprints4robbingcasinos.com. The rotten Benedict stands atop a seemingly impregnable fortress, with all three hotel casinos filtering their cash into a single underground vault, protected by complex alarms and armed security. As we see in a series of sarcastic, period-specific flashbacks, casino robberies always end in dismal failure. Even if the crew manages to dupe security, screw around with high-tech doohickeys, descend into the pit and neutralize the guards, it'll be impossible to escape with the loot. Ocean, of course, remains undaunted.
The rest of the movie plays out in a piecemeal but endurable fashion, with each of the experts plying their trade. Employing perfectly timed deceptions and manipulations, Ocean's 11 strike when Benedict's coffers are at their fullest. Gone is the original's New Year's Eve scheme (and its amusing Godzilla-esque miniatures of electrical towers toppling). Instead, the crew infiltrate during the middle of a boxing match between two contenders, Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, who both hold doctorates. Since the Nevada Gaming Commission requires casinos to cover in cash every chip in play, the vault is estimated to contain around $150 million. If only the NGC also required that stealing it be consistently interesting.
Writer Griffin has streamlined everything about the project, transforming the original's five casinos into three, linking them together and excising almost all character development not related to specific skills. In Milestone's film -- an interesting time capsule but by no means a terrific movie -- we got Peter Lawford working out his mother issues and Sammy and Dean lip-synching their hearts out, occasionally a few frames off. Here, there's the odd groovy scene -- Pitt teaching Damon how to lie convincingly, Cheadle vainly shielding his scrotum from an enormous electromagnetic pulse -- but the characters simply aren't fleshed out enough to maintain interest through all the burglary rigmarole.
What really cripples the film, however, is the languidness of its love triangle. Never for a moment is Benedict revealed to be anything but a greedy, power-mad cad, so Tess's attraction to him makes no sense at all. There is one moment between Tess and Ocean that feels sort of genuine, when he asks if her new man makes her laugh, to which she hastily replies, "He doesn't make me cry." But in the 1960 film, despite a massive sexist undertow, Angie Dickinson and Patrice Wymore showed resolve and resentment, while Griffin and Soderbergh reduce Roberts's role to a boring princess who's locked herself in a sterile castle. To win her back, Ocean is willing to egg on Benedict, but one must wonder why he bothers.
Even though Ocean's Eleven is anchored by supposedly hip turns of phrase like "You do the math," its overall composition just doesn't add up. A suspense-free caper, it really does fit the director's own description of "a two-hour commercial for Las Vegas." Too bad it commits the crime of being so intensely average, because what could have been sensational turns out to be merely this week's heist movie.