Ocean’s 13 

The movie as luxury brand.

George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, and Bernie Mac in Ocean’s 13

In a summer full of ponderous blockbusters (an oddly large percentage of which seem to be the third in a series), Ocean’s 13 (Warner Bros.) is the first I’ve seen that makes the smart choice to downsize from the previous installment. Ocean’s 12 (2004) dragged its dozen leads from one European location to another in search of an antique document and a Fabergé egg, pursued by a French superthief and an international cop. Ocean’s 13 returns the gang to their Vegas home and focuses them on one specific task: To bankrupt and humiliate a megalomaniacal tycoon named Willy Bank (Al Pacino) who’s about to open an elite hotel after cheating his partner Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) out of his percentage of the profits.

Pacino is Bank, all right—casting him as the bad guy was worth whatever stratospheric salary he now commands. Resplendent in lavender suspenders and a glowing orange tan, he’s one of the few actors with both the star power and the gift for self-mockery that this franchise requires. And, similar to his marvelous Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (2004), he builds Bank’s villainy on a firm foundation of pathos. This is a guy with nothing in life but his reputation for running great hotels. So, the dashing dozen—financed by their former nemesis, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia)—resolve to destroy Bank’s new establishment, a Gehry-esque Postmodern skyscraper, along with his reputation in the hospitality industry.

The heist plot departs from the cheerfully ludicrous notion that the disgraced Tishkoff is literally dying of a broken heart—he suffers an infarction after Bank’s betrayal and refuses to get out of bed thereafter. The guys decide to lift Reuben’s spirits with the best gift of all: the schadenfreude of witnessing your enemy’s ruin. And if it takes staging an earthquake, shutting down a high-security supercomputer, sabotaging the visit of a Michelin-style hotel critic (David Paymer) with everything from bedbugs to food poisoning, and equipping Matt Damon with a false nose and an aphrodisiac skin implant so he can seduce Bank’s assistant (a game Ellen Barkin)—well, that’s what friends are for.

Like Greek epic heroes with their identifying epithets, each member of the Ocean’s pantheon has exactly one personality trait, which he wields proudly from film to film. Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is the suave, unflappable capo; Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), the sharply dressed tactician who executes Danny’s ideas; Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon), the wannabe kid struggling to be taken seriously by the big boys—I could run down the list one by one, but there are word counts to be considered here. With a cast this large, Soderbergh has to resort too often to devices like multiple screens and long pans across a lineup of faces. Some characters, like Bernie Mac’s sleight-of-hand man and Shaobo Qin’s contortionist acrobat, barely get one scene.

The crime plot in Ocean’s 13 is thoroughly incomprehensible from beginning to end. The bumbling brothers Virgil and Turk Malloy (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan) infiltrate a Mexican factory to manufacture loaded dice, which they then hand-deliver to the casino—but if you need a remote control to operate the dice, how come patrons who aren’t even in on the scam suddenly start winning, too? Then there’s the Cockney tech geek Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle), who spends large portions of the movie underground, burrowing beneath the Bank hotel with a drill so huge, it was used to dig the Chunnel from England to France. How a works project of this magnitude would escape the knowledge of everyone in Las Vegas (not to mention seismologists and space satellites) is a plot hole big enough to create a Chunnel of its own.

But the Ocean movies aren’t about plot, logic, or character development. They’re spa experiences, two-hour-long immersions in a warm tub of Vegas (and Vegas-movie) nostalgia. “The town has changed,” murmurs Danny as he and Rusty gaze into the fountains of the newfangled Bellagio Hotel, reminiscing about the Sands. Shocked that Bank would dare betray a fellow old-timer, Tishkoff reminds him, “You shook Sinatra’s hand!” (Yeah, that’s a real mark of moral distinction.) Surrendering to Ocean’s 13’s pleasurable surfaces—the green of the gaming tables, the deft, volleying banter, the admirable cut of Clooney’s jib—is sort of like admitting your attraction to a luxury brand: Sure, those alligator loafers are extravagant nonsense, but they feel so nice on your feet.