Thursday, February 22, 2018

Five Things to Love: The OCEAN'S Trilogy

by Rob DiCristino

The world is a mess. Let’s regroup, shall we?

Loving movies is like loving sports. Balls and fields come in all shapes and sizes, as do movies. We all have our favorite teams — horror, sci-fi, Westerns, and so on. Kubrick, Spielberg, Russell, Streep — they’re our favorite players. Look, you get the analogy. And just like the heartbreaking ups and downs that come with following our favorite sports teams, endless movie watching can get stressful. Awards season, summer blockbusters, Scary Movie Month. Nobody likes to admit it, but we all get worn down. I’m pretty worn down at the moment. Watching movies feels like an obligation. I’m distracted by world events. Devoting energy to art feels tedious and misguided. I’ve fallen out of love with it. I need to shake out the cobwebs and get my groove back. It’s time to drink from the fountain of movie love, starting with Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy. Despite their convoluted plots and deep bench of quick-witted con artists, the series thrives on the kind of effortless charm that many filmmakers would kill to conjure once, let alone three times. Let’s take a short respite from the garbage world we’ve built for each other and talk about five things to love from the Ocean’s trilogy:
1. George Clooney and Brad Pitt - It seems pointless to start anywhere else. Conventional wisdom says that pairing two leading men in such similar archetypal roles would distract focus from one or the other and muck with the chemistry on set, but I’ll be damned if Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan don’t have one of the great cinematic love stories in recent memory. It’s clear from their first scene together in Eleven that these two men live to challenge one another — Danny as the brains, Rusty as the brawn — and it’s obvious from the series’ gradual pitch toward farce that the two actors bring out something truly fun and special in each other. What’s best about their brand of cool is that it doesn’t come at any of their friends’ expense (except when it’s funny, like in the “Lost in Translation” bit in Twelve) and that they’re never afraid to be vulnerable with each other. Their symbiotic relationship is clear and developed in every scene they share, which means we definitely, absolutely do NOT, under any circumstances, need some prequel about them learning to count cards on the Strip in the early ‘80s. The Stranger Things kids have enough to do. Leave it alone.
2. Thief Speak - “You’re looking at a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros, and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever.” There’s The Gilroy, The Hell in a Hand-Basket, The Brody, The Susan B. Anthony, and The Lookie-Loo, which the boys pair with a “Bundle of Joy” in Twelve for the Julia Roberts gag. Now, do some of these cons make sense if you understand the context? Sure! The Ella Fitzgerald, for example, refers to the singer whose voice breaks the glass in the ‘70s Memorex cassette commercial. “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” Is the video of Benedict’s vault live, or is it a recording? In Thirteen, Ocean offers Al Pacino’s Willie Bank a Billy Martin (or second chance) named in honor of the hot-tempered Yankees manager who – despite his flaws – always got another shot. And it’s not just that these monikers sound cool; they’re a signal to the audience that a good thief has to talk to the talk if they’re going to walk the walk — imagine being the new kid who doesn’t know what a Soft Shoulder is — and that even the best among them would be a fool to take any of this convoluted nonsense too seriously.
3. Soderbergh’s Style - These movies sing. They’re relentless, joyous, and confident slices of entertainment that practically weaponize the ridiculous chemistry shared by the ensemble cast. Steven Soderbergh (acting as both director and cinematographer and working with series editor Stephen Mirrione) mixes and matches big, glossy Hollywood staging with bouncy and unpredictable cinema vérité in ways that never clash or feel discordant. They show off, for sure, but aren’t these movies about show-offs? Consider how the precise and seamless Eleven transitions into the moodier and more experimental Twelve (with its snap-zooms and fuzzy European continuity), and how both layers complement each other in the bubbly victory lap that is Thirteen. What’s more, Soderbergh knows how to physically mold and shape his actors to make the frame more expressive and tell the story visually rather than through dialogue alone. Watch the Malloy brothers (Scott Caan and Casey Affleck) during group shots. Watch how fidgety Matt Damon’s Linus gets in long takes. Watch how much Rusty eats. Soderbergh knows that no intricate heist plot is ever going to match the energy generated by a great cast filmed well.
4. Allies and Enemies – Outside of the core Eleven, the series boasts an impressive roster of guest stars. For Chrissakes, Thirteen has two Corleones! Three, if you’re in some kind of multiverse that includes Scott Caan (You do dig on multiverses, don’t you?). Andy Garcia anchors the villains as Terry Benedict, who’s smarmy and tough without ever becoming a caricature. He might actually be the hero if you watch the series from his perspective, and I totally buy him wanting to get in on a score in Thirteen. He’s certainly more defined than his uncle Al, who’s coasting a bit in Thirteen and is largely up-staged by his Sea of Love co-star Ellen Barkin (awkward and dated cougar jokes not withstanding). Still, it’s Pacino, and Willie Bank sits firmly in his late career wheelhouse. One of my favorite stand-up comics, Eddie Izzard, appears as Roman the Tech Guy and delivers one of the best lines in the series (“Tell him he dresses like a gigolo!”). Catherine Zeta-Jones is stunning, and Vincent Cassel does that awesome laser grid dance, so that’s cool. Speaking of Twelve, I’m a huge fan of the aforementioned Julia Roberts gag. I know a lot of people think it’s stupid, but it’s fun and she’s great and it works for that movie. Look, I just really like Ocean’s Twelve.
5. Ocean’s Twelve - Just hear me out. I’m not necessarily saying that you have to be into the movie. It’s not for everyone. Eleven is clearly the best in the series (it’s the Platonic ideal of a Sunday afternoon cable movie; if it’s on, you will watch it), but long before Soderbergh followed up the polished and kinetic Magic Mike with the goofy hangout fun of Magic Mike XXL (I know he didn’t direct it — shut up), he took a weird chance on a big-budget French New Wave film starring some of the most in-demand celebrities on the planet. It’s hardly the least accessible movie in the director’s cannon, but the fact that he was able to get it made after Eleven took in half a billion dollars worldwide is a miracle. I don’t even care that Thirteen is more or less a backtracking apology sequel. Twelve totally loosened the bottle cap on that one. The subplot about the worker’s revolution at the Mexican dice factory seems totally normal and plausible when you compare it with all that Faberge egg, house-lifting bullshit they were doing in Rome. My point is that Matt Damon made three Bourne movies during this period, and I can’t tell the difference between any of them. Case closed.


  1. Great article, Rob! This makes me want to revisit all of these movies. It's been a long time.

    1. I've been looking into getting us a pair of Terry Benedict walking sticks. I'm gonna turn mine into a flask.

  2. The Ocean's Trilogy is definitely required viewing. At least the first movie. The other are also very good

  3. I re-watched Ocean's Eleven recently (it's great), and was eagerly looking forward to listening to Patrick and JB's podcast episode on it. But the episode is nowhere to be found? I must be confusing it with another podcast. It's funny that I seem to distinctly remember JB being the co-host.

    I don't believe I've ever seen 12 or 13, unfortunately.

  4. Great article, Rob. Although Ocean's Thirteen is my least favorite in the series, I think it has the biggest laughs. For whatever reason, I find Casey Affleck starting the revolution in Mexico and the two Oprah jokes so goddamn funny.