Tuesday, January 24, 2017

All the Pieces Matter: Ocean's Eleven

by Rob DiCristino
A new column on the scenes and sequences that make up the movies we love.

A scene is just a series of shots. A sequence is just a series of scenes. A movie is just a series of sequences. But a great movie is so much more than just the sum of its parts: it’s the pace, the energy, the warmth of the worlds we love to live in. All the pieces matter. Maybe it’s a great performance or music cue. Maybe it’s the slick direction or snappy dialogue. Whatever the case, a movie’s grip on us largely depends on how many of these pieces we latch onto. Often it’s just about preference (we all have our own particular tastes and styles), but there’s a degree of objective awesomeness with which some movies are just plain gifted. Some of them just work. This column will take a look at some essential scenes from great movies (and some good-to-not-so-good movies), breaking them down into their component elements and discovering what makes them tick. These aren’t the films’ best scenes, necessarily, but they’re meant to be a representative sample, a snapshot of the film’s aesthetic and delivery. Let’s get started.

First up is the “celebrity poker” scene from Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, a movie so goddamn cool that almost any moment might be worthy of this column. This one, though, is a five-minute bit in the first act that serves to introduce Brad Pitt’s character Rusty Ryan and his relationship with Danny Ocean (George Clooney). For the uninitiated, Danny and Rusty are out-of-work con men itching for a respite from boredom: Danny’s been serving a lengthy prison sentence after a heist-gone-wrong, while Rusty’s been cooling his heels in Las Vegas, giving poker lessons to actors. The plot demands that we get these two back together in order to kick off the action and get to The Big Heist, but all we know right now is that they haven’t spoken in some time and that Danny is on the hunt for his partner.
Rusty is snacking when we meet him, a gag that runs through all three Ocean’s films* and sets up his relaxed and groovy aloofness, an effortless cool that compliments his role as Ocean’s second-in-command. We hit that beat again when he refuses to haggle with Topher Grace over his fee. This is the best kind of character exposition, the kind that shows and doesn’t tell. With barely a word, we know who he is and what to expect from him. The scene moves to a back room where Rusty walks a group of young television actors (Grace, Joshua Jackson, Holly Marie Combs, Barry Watson, and Shane West) through a hand of five-card draw. Their bumbling ineptitude (“All reds!”) does two things: it endears us to Rusty as an intelligent (and frustrated) authority and cues the audience to pay attention to order, process, and result, all essential to following a heist caper.

After a much-needed break (“I’m running away with your wife!”) Rusty returns to find his old buddy Danny in the mix. They share a long look that could mean anything from “How dare you?” to “Thank God you’re here!” Now we’ve got genuine dramatic stakes. Whereas we sympathized with Rusty a minute ago, we’re now in the actors’ position, a bit nervous and eager to understand the dynamic between these two. Since Soderbergh (and Ted Griffin’s screenplay) understand that there’s no reason for two characters who already know something to explain it to each other, the actors flesh out the pair’s backstory through a series of tense questions and ambiguous answers: we know the Incan headdress score went tits-up, but we don’t actually know who was responsible or how these two feel about each other.
This ambiguity is crucial for what’s coming next – Danny raising the stakes of the poker game. The sequence is now firmly in its second act (conflict and complication), and it’s worth noting that this one move serves all three plot threads: it tests the actors’ developing poker skills, gives Rusty the real challenge he’s been so desperate for, and allows Danny to feel out how willing Rusty is to play ball. Note the way Rusty comments on Danny’s actions; he seems like he’s teaching the kids, but he’s really taking digs at Danny’s bad habits (more character exposition!) and codifying their relationship for the audience. The kids giggle and posture themselves for the two veterans, but neither man is registering their actions at all. This is a mental game between old rivals (note, again, that they almost never take their eyes off of each other once the hand starts), a silent undercurrent of a story thread that we’re aching to see pay off.

It feels for a while like Rusty might be using this opportunity to one-up Danny, to use his students as a proxy to show off his own skills, but it only takes another longing look or two for us to realize that he and Danny are working together. Rusty, having properly stoked his marks’ fires, bails on the hand and lets their egos take over. It’s important that they bite, not just because they’re gullible young people trying to show off, but because it renews the old dynamic between Danny and Rusty and pushes us into the next act of the film. Danny, the good cop, the smooth operator, sticks the landing: “Not sure what the four nines does, but the ace, I think, is pretty high.” Did Rusty feed him cards, or is Danny just that good? Either way, it worked. They’re both warmed up and ready to get down to serious business. It’s the kind of cool and confident sleight of hand that Ocean’s Eleven will make a habit of for the next two hours, a deceptively brilliant scene that serves plot, backstory, and character all at the same time.

Plus, there are scantily-clad ladies dancing in the background.
What are your favorite scenes in Ocean’s Eleven? What other movies would you like to see covered on All the Pieces Matter? Leave it in the comments.

*The best and most ridiculous example of this is later in Eleven, when he munches on shrimp cocktail (complete with napkin and sauce) while talking to Matt Damon’s Linus Caldwell at a valet station.

5 comments:

  1. what's great about soderbergh is that he made a number of movie in different genre, and a tv show, and it's always great. i mean, he made a male stripper movie that was better than most movies that year.

    in the category, 'they don't make them like they used to', this one is at the top. he makes cool look effortless. it is so hard to make a cool movie that doesn't feel forced that most of the time they just come out as 'hey look at me, aloof i am'.

    and nobody is cooler than Clooney

    back to topic, favorite scene? it's been a while, but the whole heist at the end is one that i always remember

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  2. This is one of those perfect movies that's always on cable and you can't help watching the whole thing when you see it. I love that each character has a scene that feels like their own in a way. Like the scene with Carl Reiner watching dog races. It tells you so much about his character, and what he brings to the team without having to talk at you unnecessarily. It's like this movie is several great bottle episodes all leading to a killer season finale. Great pick for a great new column!

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  3. In the best moments of that flick Ted Griffin's script feels like it is channeling the great William Goldman and, truly, there is no higher compliment I can give to any example of Hollywood entertainment.

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  4. This piece is full of too many great observations to mention. Absolutely fantastic Rob!

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  5. I love this play-by-play breakdown. Looking forward to future columns, Rob!

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