There's no doubt that Soderbergh can and will do better, reach higher, push harder, but here he wanted to figure out this "wind-up toy," as he once put it, and it would be churlish to begrudge him his fun—and ours. Ocean's Eleven is the most purely entertaining movie to come out of Hollywood so far this year, and if that doesn't seem worthy of Soderbergh's talents, it's worthy enough for a night's amusement. The plot may be flimsy, but screenwriter Ted Griffin's dialogue has the snap of classic screwball comedy, with the occasional hiccup of Soderbergh's own puckish humor. How Danny and Rusty secure the blueprints for the casinos' safe is of an absurdist piece with how Rusty communicates with the team's acrobat, Yen (Shaobo Qin), with how he liberates the explosives expert, Basher (Don Cheadle), and, finally, with how the heist goes down. If the actual robbery doesn't sizzle the way it should (there's none of the nail-biting thrill of, say, Jules Dassin's Rififi), the quick-sketch scenes of how the team joins forces, along with their elaborate preparations, show Soderbergh at his most playful. Pay attention, and in between the volleys of freeze-frames, swish pans and jump cuts, you'll catch a bit from Casablanca, another from Touch of Evil, along with a few nods toward Howard Hawks.
That sense of play, of not simply finding the perfect moment but sharing it with the rest of us, is most evident in Clooney and Pitt's badinage, in the way the two share the same frame with such easy confidence. There are some actors who bring out the best in other performers, and Clooney, whether he's riding the waves with Mark Wahlberg in The Perfect Storm or riding shotgun with Pitt, is one of them. His body slightly thickened, eyes dark and smoldering as Theda Bara's, Clooney holds the screen with the self-assurance of a star who knows he's not about to lose it, even when the guy next to him looks like Brad Pitt. For his part, the younger actor, dressed ghetto fabulous and unburdened by romantic counterpoint, again proves that he's best—and most at ease—when he's digging into a character role or playing close second fiddle to another strong actor. The two stars make such a beautiful couple that by the time Roberts enters, clomping her way into the boys' club, you want her to walk right back out. Hers is the most thankless role in the film—she is, after all, just the girl—but what's undeniable, too, is how she alone seems bereft of the generosity and bonhomie that give the rest of the cast its 14-karat luster. To watch Clooney and Pitt jab and spar, trading perfectly timed call-and-response insults, is to realize that before Roberts' stilettos even hit the ground, this movie had its Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
Ocean's Eleven was directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Ted Griffin; produced by Jerry Weintraub; and stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and Andy Garcia. Now playing countywide.