The jazzy music, saturated-to-bleeding colors, and even the credits font make it clear from the outset: Ocean’s Thirteen is more variety show than heist thriller. The gang of thieves from Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve is re-assembled, and while their new scam is more of a group effort than the scattered riffing of Twelve, its building-block cons are as cool and varied as ever.
Returning to the stage, the Ocean crew: Rusty (Brad Pitt) puts on scraggly facial hair to play a seismologist. Linus (Matt Damon) prepares to seduce a casino employee (Ellen Barkin), a task that, he insists, requires a prosthetic nose. Basher (Don Cheadle) mostly minds a giant piece of construction equipment, but impersonates a motorcycle daredevil on the fly as an elaborate distraction. The brothers Malloy (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan) are off to Mexico. George Clooney’s Billy Ocean, as usual, acts as ringleader, which means a lot of standing around looking fabulous in suits, as well as one spectacularly well-timed eyeroll.
The ostensible reason for these heist-themed skits is to fleece Vegas big-shot Willie Bank (Al Pacino). Bank has forced Reuben (Elliott Gould) out of plans for a flashy new casino/hotel, leaving Reuben physically and mentally hobbled, which doesn’t sit right with his friends.
This sense of male loyalty and camaraderie explains away the missing love interests (Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones — who, frankly, did no favors for the last sequel — are mentioned obliquely but not seen). ‘It’s not her fight,’ Ocean says early on, and he may as well be referring to the entire female gender. As breezy and larkish as this series wants to be, it’s not above insisting that this time, it’s personal.
Thus Ocean’s Thirteen is framed as a revenge story, which nevertheless plays out more like a victory lap — though what exactly the cast and crew have triumphed over, I’m not sure. Life, I guess; I’m not sure if you’ve heard this, but it turns out that Clooney, Pitt, and Damon are apparently hugely successful, attractive, and charming, and they all like each other a whole lot.
So maybe they’ve triumphed over potential jealousy, because I couldn’t help but smile a whole lot while watching Ocean’s Thirteen. The gags execute the clever trick of seeming like deadpan throwaways while showing up at regular, punctuated intervals. The big score turns out to be a misdirection; this film is almost entirely funny side business, compartmentalizing the nonsense that tangled up the otherwise amusing Twelve. Damon, so serious in most of his lead roles, is especially hilarious playing the frustrated little brother of the gang and breaking unspoken rules about keeping it cool and low-key.
In between laughs, we have director Steven Soderbergh shooting a Las Vegas awash in color — reds and oranges that make the casino lighting look like a hellish (but bright) imitation of sunlight, the dark green of a security command center, and the rich blues of the sky above the strip. Like its predecessors, this is a great-looking jape (though not always a great-sounding one; with some of the dialogue flying too fast and mumbly over the zippy David Holmes score to process fully).
The recurring problem with making an Ocean’s movie is the tactical deployment of a huge cast, and Thirteen is a bit too complacent to change that; Bernie Mac once again gets the short shrift, and Don Cheadle’s character moments seem cobbled together from spare riffs. Clooney himself even spends some time on the sidelines.
The script doesn’t find much room for new characters, either: While it’s fun to watch Pacino restrain himself as Bank (he barely gives a shout the whole film), his role is so underwritten, even by the series’ standards, that he essentially plays the crusty old dean of Las Vegas to our boys’ fun-loving frat house — though, in a neat bit of irony, it’s the younger guys who casually mourn the tourist glitz of the new Vegas.
At one point, Clooney and Pitt go for a reflective little walk and ruminate over the way the town has changed over the years. It’s a nice gesture, and Soderbergh shoots this quiet scene, as he does most others, with high style, but in the wake of Swingers and The Cooler, these sentiments are a little late to the after-party.
Beyond currency, Ocean’s Thirteen is nowhere near as memorable as those Vegas chronicles, nor as the streamlined first film. But Soderbergh, surrounded by special-effects competition, makes the casualness work for him. Now that just about any second sequel is promoted as the capper of an epic trilogy, his willingness to simply do it once more with feeling is like a face full of air-conditioning.
Aka Ocean’s 13.
Seriously, we gotta do this again?