By making a bad film the second time, that is a perfect example of pimping. That’s a perfect example of not being true and honest to yourself. I don’t want to do that. But my connection with the boys, I couldn’t say no. I can’t say no to Soderbergh, “Bernie, we want you in this.” I was doing Guess Who at the time too and flying all over, that’s how I got pneumonia… I said, “Man, this script is booty. I didn’t know if it was Mission Impossible or what? What are we doing?’ but you can’t say nothing.
— Bernie Mac, Rotten Tomatoes News (4 March 2007)
Most everyone agrees that Oceans Twelve was a disappointment. But if talking about that disappointment seems a peculiar pitch for Oceans Thirteen, it also looks pretty clever. Every time George Clooney or Bernie Mac admits to the lameness of Number Two, the third film in the franchise can’t help but promise improvement.
One more time, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his boys stage a magnificently planned, brilliantly executed scheme to get even with an adversary and steal loads of money. This time, the scheme is motivated by revenge for one of their own: when Reuben (Elliot Gould) is cheated out of his money by the exceptionally smug and obnoxious Willie Bank (Al Pacino), the gang rallies to teach the villain a lesson. It’s only too bad they don’t include a directive to get his red-tinted hair redone.
The plot is much the same as in Oceans Eleven and Twelve, which means the gang, dispersed initially, gathers to address the crisis. As Reuben lies in his richly appointed bed, his friends pace and ponder outside on the villa’s veranda. They must “make it right,” they insist, not quite urgently, even as you understand the whole “honor” question as an essentially trumped up conduit to yet another caper. First step, following Bank’s erection of The Bank, an exceedingly elaborate hotel and casino shaped like two strands of DNA stretching into the bright blue Las Vegas sky, is to plan a heist. The money, as always, is not the primary object, but rather, a means to inflict pain on Bank. Even more crucial in this process is ruining his chances for winning the Royal Review Board’s Five Diamond Award, which he has won for all of his other magnificent hotels (revealed in a spiffy montage that rather repeats what you already know: the Oceans movies are all about showing fabulous locations in glittering sunlight).
In order to manage the heist, they must breach The Bank. And that means calling in a tech expert, namely, Roman (played by the utterly delightful Eddie Izzard). As he listens to Danny and Rusty (Brad Pitt) lay out the problem, he’s increasingly skeptical. As usual, their goal is unattainable (and their protracted narrative grants still more occasion for shots of sensational locations). At last, Roman learns the security system installed in The Bank is not-incidentally designed by his old classmate Greco (Julian Sands) (when Rusty wonders about their names, Roman suggests he can’t begin to know the ins and outs of British boys’ schools). Named for its designer, the Greco is — surprise! — impossible to breach. And besides, he tells, Rusty and Danny, “You’re analog players in a digital world.”
Roman is right, but apparently, he’s also not seen the previous two films. For the point of the Ocean heists, for all their gorgeous lighting and exquisite soundtracking, are dedicated to old-school boy wondrousness. Notoriously drawn from the old Rat Pack outings, the films use high-techy gadgets to ensure that safes might be cracked or vehicles, rooms, and gambling operations might be rigged, but really focus on the friendships, the jaunty demeanors, the cocktails and tuxedos.
Here again, the easy camaraderie among the major players remains the most predictably entertaining aspect of the film, particularly Danny’s friendship with Rusty, which refers in-jokingly to the actors’ famous friendship. A couple of times, the film drops you into their conversations midway, without back-story or explanation, so that punch-lines seem both unknowable and strangely satisfying, as in Rusty’s apparently clever, wholly contextless rejoinder: “I said, ‘What do I look like, a pancake eater?'” Read as you will.
Cute, if a little smirky, such interactions are the film’s central attraction. Other encounters are less cunning and considerably more mechanical. As Linus (Matt Damon) is working through rather conventional “issues” with his father (an old-school con man), he eagerly tries to make his part in the current scheme exceptional. And so he offers to be the designated seducer of Willie’s “right hand man,” who is a woman, Abigail Spooner (Ellen Barkin). With Danny’s wife Tess (Julia Roberts) absent (she’s reportedly caring for the couple’s child, and, as Danny insists, “It’s not their fight”), Spooner serves as the movie’s principal girl. Unfortunately, she’s cast as a joke waiting to be punch-lined, desperate both to please her smarmy boss and to find sensual pleasure with “younger men.” Her suits are tight and her cleavage stunning, she ends up looking more foolish than smart, especially when Linus uses what seems a hormone-derived drug to induce her obsessive-for-a-minute interest in him (the fact that he also dons a humungous plastic nose as a “disguise” might have sounded funny on paper).
Similarly, the film makes raucous fun of a hotel reviewer (David Paymer), whom the schemers abuse mercilessly, inflicting on him rashes and tainted food. His descent into misery parallels the other plots, each granting a performer a moment in the spotlight, per formula. Frank (Mac) runs a dominoes table, Basher (Don Cheadle) swaggers as an Evel Knievelsih motorcycle stunt rider, and the moral-minded brothers Malloy (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan) encourage a workers’ demonstration in Mexico, before ensuring the manufacture of trick dominoes for Frank’s game. By the time the crew enlists the help of former foe Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), the 122 minutes running time is seeming awfully long. The big climax involves earthquakes and fireworks, as well as hordes of desperate (not Oceans-style) gamblers thrilled to win all kinds of cash.