Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

Ocean’s Eleven is a film that works almost solely because of how suave, sophisticated, and downright sexy its characters are. The dialogue they get to deliver is clever, they’re sharply dressed, and they’re charming so that we automatically want to see more of them. This is a heist movie, and as such, the leads are actually the bad guys who steal from hard working people. They need to be endearing to us so that we want to watch them work.

The plot, like many heist films, involves a group of people, all with specific jobs, who want to steal something from someone. In this case, that something is over $150 million, and that someone is named Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). All that’s left is to identify our cast of characters, and figure out how to steal that large sum of money. Like the title indicates, eleven men will be performing this heist.

The first one we meet is Danny Ocean (George Clooney), who has just been released from prison. He tried to steal something before, got caught, and was locked away for four years. He claims that after his wife, Tess (Julia Roberts) left him, he had a breakdown and went insane, causing the theft. When questioned if, when released, he’d slip into such a state of mind again, he replies with “She already left me once. I don’t think she’d do it again just for kicks.” This was the first time I laughed, and it was only a minute or so into the picture. I would laugh during many more moments.

Danny goes to visit his friend Rusty (Brad Pitt), who has been teaching celebrities how to play cards. They’re not very good, with one of them believing that he’d won a round with “all reds,” despite having a mixture of diamonds and hearts. I guess that watching people play on TV is a better way to learn than actually getting an instructor, or maybe it was just a self-parody turn by the five people sitting at that table. Regardless, Danny convinces Rusty to help him steal the cash, so they embark on a quest to get the rest of the cast together.

This group consists of Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Don Cheadle, Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, Scott Caan, Eddie Jemison, Shaobo Qin, and Matt Damon. Each one has a specialized skill; Qin is a contortionist, Cheadle blows things up, Damon is good at espionage, and so on. Each member has a role to play, and each one does it well. They’re also all such likable people so that even though they’re performing a crime, we want to see them get away with it. Oh, and Danny Ocean wants to win his ex-wife back while they’re at it. Fun!

Ocean’s Eleven is a film that succeeds on the backs of its ensemble cast members.

You know how the rest of the movie goes, assuming you’ve seen a heist movie before. We watch everything go down while narration plays overhead. We eagerly await for things to test the characters’ wits and need for precise timing, all while hoping that they’ll overcome the inevitable difficulties, steal whatever they want, while getting away scot-free. And if the antagonist—who I’ll remind you is generally a good person who hasn’t done anything wrong—gets to have his face rubbed in the crime afterward, well, it’s all for the best.

Heist movies generally go either way for me. Sure, they’re almost all very predictable, but if they’re done in a sophisticated manner, and they give us some thrills along the way, I’ll enjoy them. If they’re competent, but have nothing special to offer us, then I usually won’t have much fun, because I’ll see everything coming and won’t be distracted by whatever that intangible element could be.

Thankfully, Ocean’s Eleven has that thing that makes it special, and in this case, it’s the characters. Each one is unique enough for us to tell the difference between them (the distinct jobs for the heist help as well), but they’re all charming people as well, delivering sharp dialogue that helps to keep us engaged. The caper itself only actually takes about 30 minutes, with the rest of the film taking its time in getting everyone together, and setting up the theft.

When we finally get to that point, it’s incredibly thrilling. I was surprised to find out how badly I wanted to see the criminals win, and have everything go right when they’re performing their job. I didn’t want the antagonist, the good person who happens to have enough money to run multiple casinos, to catch them. This takes skill, and I was impressed by director Steven Soderbergh‘s ability to have us empathize with these characters—who in an action movie would be the bad guys.

I think that some of the credit has to go to the actors too, many of whom had a pretty solid resume going into the making of Ocean’s Eleven. There are a great deal of recognizable faces here, and knowing the actors often helps you care about their character, especially if you have liked previous roles from that actor. The low point of the film comes from Don Cheadle, who, for reasons that are never really explained, decided to put on an awful Cockney accent for his part. If he hadn’t lambasted this decision in interviews following the film’s release, I would have assumed it was satirical. It was just that bad.

Ocean’s Eleven is a film that succeeds on the backs of its ensemble cast members, because without them, we’d have a generic heist movie. Since we have such an outstanding cast of characters, we get a great film. The heist itself is quite thrilling thanks to how much we empathize with the characters, and it ends up being a very rewarding experience, one that I’d recommend to anyone, especially fans of heist movies.

Conclusion: Ocean’s Eleven is a very fun heist film.

Recommendation: You want to have a fun time watching people rob other people? Watch Ocean’s Eleven.

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