Ocean's Thirteen: Dead in the Water

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Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Bros.

Oceans 13

A few Hollywood extravaganzas blow into Cannes every year, and among all the serioso European and Asian fare that dominates the Competition they're like a clown visiting a children's ward: colorful, noisy, oversize and full of professional pep, compared to the wan, torporous little things languishing immobile in their beds. So today, when Ocean's Thirteen was the main attraction, many critics anticipated it with pleasure— if only as playtime after a week's homework studying and reporting on the worthiest art films. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

We knew that, sometimes, nothing looks so good on the giant Festival Palais screen as a bad Hollywood movie. In 1992 the Opening Night entry was Basic Instinct, that chicly sleazy sex-and-violence thriller starring Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone and the space between Sharon Stone's legs. U.S. critics had seen the movie months before, and dumped their contempt on it. Yet in the Lumiere Theatre at Cannes, on that 60-ft.-wide canvas, it had the kind of luminosity, confidence and throbbing pulse that no Franco-Polish minimalist masterpiece could match. This, we were reminded, is why audiences in almost every foreign country prefer Hollywood movies to their own: because ours are bigger, slicker — movie-er.

And how Stone's glamour spilled off the screen — her old-fashioned beauty, of course, but also the devouring eyes and grown-up voice, and her evident pleasure in being watched. It was that evening in the Palais (and remember, I'd seen Basic Instinct at a critics' showing in New York) that I became convinced of what I still believe: that Stone is one of the few people in the post-Golden Age era who deserves that venerable epithet "movie star."

Another, unquestionably, would be George Clooney. He has all the old qualities: classically handsome but not intimidatingly so, looking perfect and comfortable in a tuxedo, and so at ease with his natural appeal — his Georgeness — that he needn't rev up or Method up a performance to screaming volume. After all, he came out of TV, where the goal is to be ingratiating, not from the stage or indie films, where the goal is threefold: sulk, simmer and explode. Clooney glides and purrs through his movies (and his public appearances) with a grace both manly and feline. He's a man's man and a woman's; and I know a few frustrated Democrats who say that, if he'd run for President, he'd be their man.

In Ocean's Thirteen (third in the series, after Eleven and Twelve), Clooney is again Danny Ocean, the gentleman heistmeister, and once more is surrounded by some pricey film flesh: Brad Pitt, also very easy on the eyes, and Matt Damon, and lots of the old gang in smaller roles: Bernie Mac, Andy Garcia, Carl Reiner, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, Casey Affleck. Julia Roberts took this film off, but Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin — last seen together 18 years ago, performing urgent stand-up sex in Sea of Love— are on board for star wattage and the nostalgia factor. Sounds eminently sit-throughable and, on the big Palais screen, watchable.

The plot— not it matters to you, or did to anyone connected with the movie — has Gould, as a venerable Vegas mogul, driven to a coronary seizure because he's been snookered out of a hotel he co-owned with the rapacious Pacino. (It used to be Gould's gold; now it's a Pacino casino.) Clooney & Co. agree to avenge their old pal by taking Pacino down: rigging the games so he loses millions on opening night, stealing a cache of precious diamonds from the usual impenetrable display and subverting his fond expectation of winning for his hotel the highest five diamonds rating from some imaginary Michelin guide. In previous films this Mission: Implausible team took stuff because it was, hey, fun. This time it's personal.

But for director Steven Soderbergh, and his actors and his crew, this time it's mechanical. They must think that the only way get from Eleven to Twelve to Thirteen is to make movies by the numbers. Let's hope that, in naming future sequels, they don't start counting backward; the whole audience will be in a trance or asleep by Nine. The new film is so listless and logy it needed Michael Moore to take it to Cuba for emergency medical treatment.

In a summer-movie preview that ran last week on TIME.com, I speculated about Ocean's Thirteen: "If Take 3 is a reasonable facsimile of its predecessors, it will be like one of those elite parties you're dying to attend because of the killer guest list; then you get in and find that, for all the star glamour in evidence, the ambiance is somehow... lacking." Turns out my hopes were too high. It's as if the whole enterprise were running on battery power that was about to give out. The five big stars can't shake the movie's infectious lethargy, and some of the others, like Mac and Cheadle, have so little to do that it's a wonder they showed up (though Gould and Reiner are OK, and Eddie Izzard squeezes some life into his cameo as an amiable criminal super-brain).

The dialogue, by scripters Brian Koppelman and David Levien, aims for smart and hits smarmy; and the actors' delivery of their lines, meant to show a relaxed wit, is perfunctory verging on read-through. With one exception. Gould, evoking the old-time Vegas when he learns how rotten Pacino is: "You and I both shook Sinatra's hand, and there's a code among the guys who shook Sinatra's hand." Pacino: "Screw Sinatra's hand."

Frank Sinatra was the star behind the original 1960 Ocean's Eleven (original in that it came first) and three ensuing, numerical Rat Pack capers: Sergeants 3, 4 Guns for Texas, Robin and the 7 Hoods. Frank and his pals — Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop — weren't trying to commit art, or even make vital entertainment. Really, they had expectations no higher than the Soderbergh-Clooney mob. Both groups were underachievers and proud of it.

The Rat Pack's idea, such as it was, was to do a movie in a friendly town (Vegas, Chicago) or familiar genre (caper, Western, gangster movie) and apply to it a bit of the ad-lib roguery they brought to their nightclub gigs. The slapdash nature of the script, performances and production was meant to reflect the informal, what-the-hell, let's-pretend-we're-having-a-ball impulse that led to their making. These were movies that loosened the tuxedo tie and the tongue to provide an intoxicated if not intoxicating diversion. They were loosy-goosy for the time, and instantly irrelevant. Marijuana would soon replace alcohol as the younger generation's drug of choice; nobody wore a tie, let alone a tux, after his senior prom.

If the revival or exhumation of the Rat Pack series has reason to exist (big if), it's to prove that Hollywood still knows how to parade the old careless glamour. That's the only reason an audience has to see the Ocean movies. So the biggest surprise and disappointment about the new one is not that it's kind of a corpse, but that the stars aren't made to look beautiful, sexy, starrish.

Why is the lighting technician for the Golden Globes, where Clooney is always Mr. Fabulous, more knowing about how to photograph him than Soderbergh (who shot the film under the pseudonym Peter Andrews)? How come Damon is more handsome and engaging in person than in this movie? When Pitt is first spotted, he looks as though he fell asleep for a year under a sun lamp. Pacino it takes a few seconds to recognize; he too looks weird, and so does Barkin. Her face has the recognizable intelligence and insolence, but the rest of her seems somehow bronzed and sanded — an unfortunate impression for a comeback performance.

These people know how to make the camera love them; they've been doing it for years, in some cases decades. So I have to think what I saw today was a prank of the emulsion, or the director. The big Palais screen, as longtime festivalgoers can vouch, is supposed to lend an extra radiance to Hollywood stars. Soderbergh makes them look like Nick Nolte in that mug shot.