IN WHICH I DECIDE TO REVISIT THE ENTIRE OCEAN’S TRILOGY
I was 10 years old when Ocean’s Eleven came out, which either makes me younger or older than you thought I was. Who cares. This is mainly important because the movies of 2001 became sleepover fodder for the next five or six years of my life. A handful of plucky girls in the early 2000s had their pick of all the 2001 hits––your Harry Potter, your Shrek, your “if the parents are especially chill” Moulin Rouge! But more often than not, the choice for the evening was Ocean’s Eleven. Maybe it’s hard for you to imagine a group of 10-year-old girls watching Steven Soderbergh’s acerbic and winsome heist movie, but I would argue your imagination might just be a little small.
I would be horrified to know that there are people in the world who are unfamiliar with Ocean’s Eleven, or the Ocean’s trilogy at large, but every day brings new horrors into my life. For the unindoctrinated: Ocean’s Eleven is a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack film of the same name. In the 2001 film, a recently-released from prison Danny Ocean (George Clooney) teams up with his old scheming partner Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) and a group of both former and new thieves to rob three Vegas casinos in one night, in an attempt to not only get away with a fuckload of cash but also to win back Danny’s ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), from his rival and casino-owner, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia).
I would never say that the main reason we liked Ocean’s Eleven was because it was full of hunks, but you do have to give some credit where credit is due: Ocean’s Eleven is full of hunks. George Clooney was two years into his movie career, having successfully moved on from ER (a show I sometimes tricked my parents into letting me watch with them). You had Brad Pitt who, as a 10-year-old, I knew only from that very recent cameo on Friends (you think a 10-year-old is old enough to see anything else Brad Pitt had been in before 2001? Grow up). And you had Matt Damon who was so cute and young and wow, that character is from Chicago and so am I! Ocean’s Eleven was also my introduction to Casey Affleck, a man for whom I would sustain a years-long crush, only to effectively break up with him (send your condolences to me whenever) following abuse and harassment allegations made public in the past few years.
But beyond the dreamboats—or, in part, in tandem with them—Ocean’s Eleven popped. It trucked. It did backflips. There is a deftness to Ocean’s Eleven that feels magical. Of all the material for adults that I consumed a little too early, this was the only one that secretly felt like it was for kids. No offense to the profoundly noble vocation of heist-pulling, but isn’t this just a crew of children, playing dress-up, pulling pranks and tricks? And doesn’t the ending, especially if you’re only 10 years old, completely floor you the first time around? Knock you back on your ass and leave you stunned?
When I told people I was going to rewatch and write about Ocean’s Eleven, they’d usually grimace. “I loved that movie,” they’d tell me, and then in a near-whisper they’d ask, “Does it hold up?” To be honest, I wondered the same. I hadn’t revisited it since early college, still within the first decade of the movie’s existence.
This question—“Does it hold up?”—permeates our cultural discourse these days. I don’t say that judgmentally. It’s a question we ask ourselves and each other because we’re self-conscious. En route to a screening of When Harry Met Sally last Valentine’s Day, an old friend told me she thought the gender politics of the movie aged horribly. To watch it made her uncomfortable and sad. It didn’t hold up. I felt my cheeks flush with anger. Of course it didn’t hold up. It wasn’t made to hold up. It was made as it was, with care and concern and whip-smart jokes.
This question of something “holding up” used to concern the more technical aspects of filmmaking: the sets, the acting, the special effects. When rewatching childhood classics from a slightly bygone era, it’s easy to see the strings being pulled. The conversation around holding up in the past few years, however, often pulls at something deeper. What was going on behind the scenes? Has someone who was once in this movie now done something terrible? Will something I’ve anchored my personality to—with or without knowing—betray me? Give me away as someone worse than I want to be? That’s not to say I suspected that Ocean’s Eleven and its subsequent 2004 and 2007 sequels (which I had not seen until I embarked on this journey) didn’t hold up.
But the question still stuck.
IN WHICH I USE FAKE CATEGORIES TO DETERMINE THE QUALITY OF ONE MOVIE I ALREADY LOVED AND TWO I HAD NEVER SEEN BEFORE
Most Creative Use Of Fonts
Ocean’s Eleven: None, honestly, unless you count Las Vegas hotels themselves.
Ocean’s Twelve: I mean, this is our winner right here. Ocean’s Twelve is mainly a movie about fonts, its central thesis asking: how many font packages can you buy and put over sweeping shots of cosmopolitan Europe? Look, what I’ll say about the Ocean’s sequels is, uh, basically they are an exercise in what you can do with money. And I won’t say outright that that’s a bad thing, but money is most of what makes things bad so you can draw some conclusions for yourself.
Ocean’s Thirteen: No fonts, but each character does write a letter to Elliott Gould, which is an idea I appreciated in general.
Is Don Cheadle’s Accent Good Or Bad?
Ocean’s Eleven: Bad, but that makes it good.
Ocean’s Twelve: Better, which is somehow worse.
Best Use Of Classical Music
Ocean’s Eleven: Do not let the Twilight Saga ruin Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” for you. The use of this piano piece over the ending of Ocean’s Eleven is bar-none the most beautiful execution of it in its 132-year history. For a movie as fun and bombastic and sharp as it is, there’s no reason why it needs to have an ending as poignant as it does. And yet! AND YET! These guys, that cash, Julia Roberts, the soft glow of the lights around the fountain…try not to shed half a tear at this band of merry thieves going their separate ways. (Soderbergh would go on to use a somewhat similar shot in Magic Mike XXL with fireworks and DJ Khalid’s “All I Do Is Win,” but note that this is the ultimate.)
Ocean’s Twelve: Oh sure, the gang tries to rob a house to Beethoven’s third symphony, the “Eroica.” I never thought I’d tell you that the use of a clichéd Debussy piece would work better than the “Eroica,” one of the most masterful symphonies of all time that ought to be played at the highest possible volume, but the piece is barely audible in the sound mix.
Ocean’s Thirteen: Do not re-play a lesser electronic keyboard arrangement of “Clair de Lune” over a stunning long shot of Brad Pitt and George Clooney talking about how much they love Elliott Gould, no offense.
Science That Seems Fake But Could Be Real But I’m Too Lazy To Google
Ocean’s Eleven: Can you actually steal a weird round-looking object that can create a power outage across a whole city? Well, that’s what the boys do in this one. Apparently pinches, as they’re known, are real, because this one I wasn’t too lazy to Google.
Ocean’s Twelve: If…I am forced…to think…about Vincent Cassel…the film’s villain…breakdancing through and around…lasers…at an art museum…I will scream…
Ocean’s Thirteen: The idea that someone could make me believe an earthquake happened inside of a building without it happening in real life is enough to give me nightmares just slightly less scary than Al Pacino’s general “Vegas look” in his turn as this movie’s villain, Willy Bank.
Most Pushed-Aside Female Role
Ocean’s Eleven: Tess! Tess, Tess, Tess. Do we all know the age-old anecdote about George Clooney sending the script to Julia Roberts with a $20 bill and a note that says, “I hear you’re getting 20 a picture now.” (The joke being, of course, it was $20 million a picture.) What’s mainly a huge bummer is that Tess is one of the emptiest roles in the movie. It’s all reaction: pursed lips, slow-blinking eyes, a woman on the verge of…something? I think the main thing that does not hold up from 2001 to whatever hellish dystopian year we find ourselves in is that in my humble, personal, and somewhat gay opinion, you do not get back together with Danny Ocean. I know it’s George Clooney. I do, I know. And I know he’s a gentleman thief who looks amazing in a suit. But this is a relationship of “I told you so” and “See?” If there’s equity, I’m not sure we see it. And take it from someone who dated a guy who went to jail, it’s not worth it.
Ocean’s Twelve: Despite all of my love for Catherine Zeta-Jones, to give Rusty, Brad Pitt’s character, a love interest is the most out-of-character decision they could make. HIS GIRLFRIEND IS FOOD.
Ocean’s Thirteen: The typically brilliant Ellen Barkin as Abigail Sponder—the hard-nosed, shrewd, but somehow also stupid assistant to Willy Bank—is the type of thing that’d make me argue for an all-female remake were I the type to support those kinds of things. It’s lazy, it’s tired, and watching the character made me achingly sad. No doubt there is a “the boys are back, etc.” vibe to the entire trilogy, but this is where it feels almost a little sadistic.
Number of times I muttered, “for crying out loud”
Ocean’s Eleven: None. Why would I? It’s excellent.
Ocean’s Twelve: What do I have to do to get sent on a vacation to three major European cities with my friends all for the sake of zingers?
Ocean’s Thirteen: The endings don’t pay off anymore, which is sad but true. Twelve might be worst but Thirteen is the emptiest. If nothing else, the two sequels are a tribute to friendship. I mean, while it’s in one part a mistake to shelve Elliott Gould for most of your movie, I do agree that I’d rob a giant, fake casino owned by Al Pacino to get him back. Does friendship hold up? I hope so, even in the dated, sad way it does at high school reunions and the like (not that I’d know, I’m still too young). The intentions are good, the shots are long, Vegas is as beautiful as it’ll ever be amidst the desert sand.
IN WHICH I TRY TO FIGURE OUT WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE
The past few months have been long, messy, confusing, and painful. So much of what comforts so many people—film, comedy, everything, really—feels tainted if not somewhat expired. Worthy of examination before being tossed in the garbage can under the sink. And no doubt the pervading unease of revisiting a predominantly male-dominated movie franchise in a sea of other male-dominated movie franchises saturated my rewatches. (The same unease, I imagine, that led to our growing comfort with the pathetic phrase, “all-female reboot”? Why not restructure something male with women rather than think of something unique for women? It’s more palatable to ask women to keep existing in a structure that often betrays them rather than rework from the ground up.) As someone who has been hurt on just about every possible side of the post-Weinstein era, it can often be…not easy, per se, to adopt a learned defense against so much male-dominated art. If you expect to be disappointed, it’ll be easy to feel that way throughout. And isn’t that ultimately just better than the ups and downs?
I am aware, amid everything heavy here, that I am talking about the Ocean’s movies. There’s a pristine aura around our childhoods selves that preserve what we love on a plane entirely separate from our own. We want to think of these former, smaller selves as equal to our current selves. No longer are we lying on the floor of some girl’s basement on our stomachs, clutching pillows, wondering if they’ll pull off the heist. We’re wondering, in part, if we can pull off one last job on ourselves—I love getting fake deep—and convince ourselves something holds up to a false ideal. It’s stressful. It’s broken. It’s hard not to do it. I invented categories that felt simultaneously frivolous and important in order to do the mental math. This was in part because I thought: it’s a fun movie, use a fun framing device. I thought it could be one to one when I thought both critically and emotionally about something once so important to me. But it’s not math. It’s movies.
Not to pull a “does it matter?” type of ending on you—that’s cheap, and what am I, an Ocean’s sequel? (Just kidding, those were very expensive.) But they hold up, really, all of them, to me personally, almost in spite of themselves, in part because they are so specific to a moment and a feeling. That is what I learned from my reevaluation. Despite the self-indulgence and the hamminess and the clearly dated (even if tongue-in-cheek) references to Topher Grace, they still feel magical. They’re truly of the zeitgeist, from a time in which we still wanted a group of mostly white men to get over on all those guys. The sweetness, the style, the pop culture references, the banter.
There’s an effortlessness that permeates Soderbergh’s films, the Ocean’s movies being the prime examples, where everything feels so fully formed and lived in (especially remarkable the less and less coherent this franchise becomes). It’s as if Danny and Rusty and all of their friends walked into frame by happenstance. And that effortlessness immediately disarms me when I watch them. It makes me feel safe. It swaddles me. And that, maybe more than the basic elements, is what held up. Remarkably. The ease with which the stories unfold and the jokes are exchanged and the various appetizers are snacked on. (Alexa, tell me how much cocktail shrimp a character in a heist movie should eat?) Midway through Ocean’s Eleven, I thought to myself, “Is this just a Magic Mike movie?” and then, “Is Magic Mike just another Ocean’s movie?” Both franchises capture men at their least threatening and most affable—a borderline insane fantasy, but one I’m desperate to latch onto. That’s the enduring magic, the backflip. That I could watch a movie dominated by men in the year 2018 and say, “wouldn’t it be fun if the world was this way?” knowing full well that it can’t and shouldn’t be.