One of the promotional stills from Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded Las Vegas heist sequel “Ocean’s Thirteen” features George Clooney as pack leader Danny Ocean, decked out in a black turtleneck and sporting a huge fake moustache. The movie also features Brad Pitt posing as a hippie scientist and Matt Damon as an aggressive womanizer with a severe nose. The inference is that the film pokes lighthearted fun at the suaveness of its movie stars by having them wear all sorts of ridiculous Fletch-like disguises.
The only problem is—it’s not very funny. Like everything in the third “Ocean’s” movie, these scenes have a great set-up and no payoff. The casual charm that was displayed so easily in “Ocean’s Eleven” has turned downright lackadaisical.
We already know how cool Ocean and his loyal band of thieves are. We have another supremely hip soundtrack that mashes together vintage organ sounds with funky guitar, horns, and overdriven dance beats, courtesy of Irish DJ/composer David Holmes. We also have some more vibrantly colorful cinematography from Soderbergh (under the pseudonym Peter Allen) that makes Vegas look a lot less cheesier than it actually is. We even get another impossible scheme to rip off a casino owner (the regrettably–named Willie Bank, played by Al Pacino) that isn’t completely revealed until the end.
After the peculiar European diversion that was “Ocean’s Twelve,” Soderbergh and cast seem a little too relieved to be back in the city that never sleeps. The familiar digs may have triggered the old camaraderie, but without a witty script, “Ocean’s Thirteen” just coasts confidently along on autopilot. Clooney and Pitt have fewer scenes with their trademark self-effacing funny business. The ridiculous disguises are good for a quick initial laugh, but don’t ever go anywhere. Too many sequences end with a thud and their memory is wiped away with a quick fade, as if to imply the old policeman-at-disaster-scene cliché: “There’s nothing to see here, folks. Move along.”
Another part of the problem is that there is nothing is at stake here either. It is a lame revenge plot to get Willie back for screwing Ocean’s accomplice and Vegas legend Ruben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould).* As complicated and absurd as the plot to do this is, it isn’t enough to fill an entire film. At least in “11,” Clooney was pulling off a heist and trying to win his ex-wife back at the same time. It allowed for more character interaction and zippy dialogue.
Both Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones (from “12″) are left out of “13,” presumably to make room for endless amounts of inane exposition. Clooney and Pitt slyly joke about how it’s not their fight, but a little male/female thrust and parry would have been nice. What little sexual interaction there is comes in the form of Linus (Damon) and his bulbous appendage (no, not that one—see the first paragraph) seducing Pacino’s assistant (Ellen Barkin). She gives in pretty quickly, due to a magical pheromone(?) on Linus’ neck, and that’s that.
A bizarre and irrelevant subplot featuring Virgil (Casey Affleck) and Turk (Scott Caan) is as unfunny as it is offensive. Sent to Mexico to mess with the casino’s dice at their factory, Affleck (wearing a mustache worse than Clooney’s) starts up a worker’s revolt because there is no air conditioning. When faced with the idea of paying the Mexicans off to keep the plan on track, Ocean—wearing swank designer duds— is surprised to find out that the almost $40,000 he would need to pay out covers not one person, but all of the workers combined. “Write them a check,” he says.
One expects a certain amount of the heist’s intricacies to be total nonsense, but “Ocean’s Thirteen” really outdoes itself. The team buys an enormous machine that was used to build the Chunnel between England and France. This is used to create a small earthquake. In addition to moving the Earth’s tectonic plates, the group must foil an artificial intelligence computer that scans every single winner in the building incessantly to determine whether their jackpot is legitimate or if they are cheating. Maybe when they’re done, they could bring that machine to Congress.
One welcome difference between the other films and this one is that the heist itself is only part of Ocean’s scheme. The other goal is to bankrupt Bank’s casino in one night by rigging their payouts and making everybody a winner for three minutes. Besides the obvious vicarious thrill, it offers a break from what has become a pretty tired formula.
“Ocean’s Thirteen” proves that bankable casting, groovy music, and lots of eye candy can only do so much. There has to be a little inspiration as well.
*The nostalgia for the Las Vegas of yesteryear is a nice motif that could have been expanded on.