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'Ocean's Eleven' (2001)

"Ocean's Eleven" is a champagne bubble of a movie, lively, effervescent and diverting. If it bursts earlier than we'd like--and it does--that takes nothing away from the considerable pleasure it provides along the way.

A suave caper movie that involves George Clooney and Brad Pitt in a scheme to walk away with all the money in Las Vegas, this "Ocean's Eleven" has taken its name, let's-rob-the-casinos concept and general air of insouciance from the dated and frankly tedious 1960 original that starred Frank Sinatra and his celebrated pals.

Otherwise this "Ocean's" is very much its own film, with a specific air of hipster bemusement and a particular sense of style. It is also part of what is starting to be director Steven Soderbergh's personal quest to keep the phrase "intelligent popular entertainment" from becoming an oxymoron. Starting with "Out of Sight" in 1998 and continuing with "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic" last year, Soderbergh has revealed a magician's gift for reviving traditional genre materials by treating them with astuteness and respect. He's been especially potent when he has a good script to work with, and that is the case here.

Sharply written by Ted Griffin ("Best Laid Plans"), "Ocean's" does run out of energy before the close, but until then it does everything a caper film should. It's got a clever plot, amusing characters and a fine ear for entertaining, unforced banter.

"Ocean's" not only has lines like "I'm gonna drop you like third period French" and the classic "I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place," it also has the actors who know what to do with them. Cool may be the hardest thing to portray effectively on screen, but Clooney and Pitt, impeccably dressed in clothes that wouldn't have the nerve to wrinkle, own the franchise.

Clooney plays ringleader Danny Ocean, a scoundrel whose unflappable reply to the standard why-were-you-in-prison question (a tart "I stole things") tells you all you need to know. Newly paroled, he immediately contacts best pal Rusty Ryan (Pitt), currently employed teaching Hollywood heartthrobs to play poker, and unveils a scam to end all scams.

The idea is to break into the vault of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, home to the receipts from three casinos owned by the smart and ruthless Terry Benedict (an on-the-money Andy Garcia). Given a hotel security system rivaling that of a nuclear weapons arsenal, the job would have to have a payoff worthy of its risks: $150 million to be split among the 11 crooks, cons and grifters needed to make it happen. (Sign of the times: In the 1960 film, the take was $11 million from five casinos.)

*

As in many action films with numbers in their titles ("The Seven Samurai," "The Magnificent Seven," "The Dirty Dozen"), the best part of "Ocean's Eleven" is the gathering of the gang, the recruitment of the skilled operatives needed to do the job. Among the most fun to watch are:

* Reuben Tishkoff, the money man, once a major casino player and now, in Elliott Gould's irresistibly excessive performance, a Vegas version of Nero in exile;

* Linus Caldwell (a well-used Matt Damon), a second-generation grifter with the fastest hands in town;

* Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner in good form), a retired ganef who hasn't lost his touch for larcenous impersonation:

* Turk and Virgil Malloy, lunatic brothers who know a lot about cars and even more about arguing, well-played by the mix-and-match combination of Scott Caan and Casey Affleck;

* Yen (Shaobo Qin), a Chinese acrobat for whom agility is everything.

But just as it never goes exactly as planned in a major heist, so a few things about "Ocean's Eleven" are not quite right, most noticeably Julia Roberts in the inevitable cherchez la femme role as Tess Ocean, Danny's estranged wife and Terry Benedict's current girlfriend.

Though it may have made sense in the abstract, playing this character in a perpetual humorless funk, as happens here, is to badly misjudge what is needed. In truth, the most enjoyable thing about the actress' performance is her droll on-screen credit: "And introducing Julia Roberts as Tess."

It doesn't help the situation that a good deal of Tess' screen time is in the post-heist aftermath, already the film's weakest link. Though "Ocean's Eleven" starts strong, it ends anticlimactic and unresolved, like a runner completely out of energy with the finish line in sight.

Still, a weak ending doesn't negate the fine work that has come before, and "Ocean's" is especially a success for Soderbergh. Shooting in the real Bellagio (producer Jerry Weintraub is nothing if not connected), the director who doubled as his own cinematographer (though he didn't take a credit) keeps things visually interesting without being too showy. Working with a well-chosen cast, he shows an instinct for knowing his actors' strengths and how to bring them out. He's constructed an elaborate edifice designed strictly for pleasure. Just like Las Vegas itself.

*

MPAA rating: PG-13, some language and sexual content. Times guidelines: The action and language are both fairly mild.

'Ocean's Eleven'

George Clooney...Danny Ocean

Matt Damon...Linus

Andy Garcia...Terry Benedict

Brad Pitt...Rusty Ryan

Julia Roberts...Tess Ocean

Carl Reiner...Saul Bloom

Elliott Gould...Reuben Tishkoff

In association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment, a Jerry Weintraub/Section Eight production, released by Warner Bros. Director Steven Soderbergh. Producer Jerry Weintraub. Executive producers John Hardy, Susan Ekins, Bruce Berman. Screenplay Ted Griffin, based on a screenplay by Harry Brown and Charles Lederer, based on a story by George Clayton Johnson and Jack Golden Russell. Editor Stephen Mirrione. Costumes Jeffrey Kurland. Music David Holmes. Production design Philip Messina. Art director Keith P. Cunningham. Set decorator Kristen Toscano Messina. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.

In general release.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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