Ocean’s Eleven Remains Steven Soderbergh’s Career-Defining Victory Lap, 20 Years Later

Movies Features Steven Soderbergh
Ocean’s Eleven Remains Steven Soderbergh’s Career-Defining Victory Lap, 20 Years Later

“Do you think we need one more?”

That’s what Danny Ocean (George Clooney) asks his right-hand man Rusty (Brad Pitt), after assembling a crew of about ten thieves, con men, bankrollers and tech guys. Danny asks again and Rusty still says nothing, which Danny takes as a yes: They will get one more. Back in 2001, Ocean’s Eleven could have been interpreted as Steven Soderbergh asking and answering that very question. The year before, Soderbergh doubled up on his late-‘90s comeback: With Erin Brockovich and Traffic, he wasn’t just back in critics’ good graces, but racking up ticket sales and awards as well—the Hollywood trifecta. Eight months before Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh won the Academy Award for directing Traffic ($124 million domestic), which also won prizes for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor. One of the other four nominees he beat out in the directing category was…Steven Soderbergh for Erin Brockovich ($125 million domestic), which took home a Best Actress prize for Julia Roberts.

After all that, Ocean’s Eleven was essentially positioned as “one more”—a victory lap reunion with his Out of Sight star Clooney, his Brockovich star Julia Roberts and his Traffic star Don Cheadle, among many others. (Whither Luis Guzmán?) Sure, it made even more money than Soderbergh’s 2000 double feature, and received appreciative reviews—though hardly the stuff of legends. This, everyone seemed to understand, was a holiday popcorn picture, coasting charmingly on the presence of Clooney, Roberts, Cheadle, Pitt, Matt Damon and Bernie Mac, at a time when multiple movie stars could still draw plenty of paying customers. It wasn’t even pretending to be an original concept; the film updates a 1960 heist picture starring a bunch of Rat Packers, the kind redo that exists primarily to confer classic-icon status upon a bunch of newer stars.

And yet what a perfectly calibrated Hollywood machine this one is—a heist movie where somehow all of it manages to be the good part, because Danny Ocean’s complicated plan to rob three Las Vegas casinos owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), partially as revenge against Benedict’s courtship of Ocean’s wife Tess (Julia Roberts), unfolds for basically the entire running time. It’s high-gloss entertainment, but pitched at adults: Slick but not synthetic, comic but not spoofy, stylish but not fussy. It inspired two sequels and a spinoff, but doesn’t feel designed to. (The very real pleasures of Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen are premised on their delicious lack of necessity; icing on the icing, rather than icing on the cake.) Like a lot of decades-only genre plays, the absence of present-day equivalents makes it easy to get wistful about the craftsmanship on display. The closest thing to an Ocean’s Eleven-style picture today is something like Red Notice, which keeps the big-name constellation stars, dims the high-wattage support, shoots mostly in front of green screens, comes out on Netflix rather than movie theaters and can’t resist throwing in shoot-outs, chases and sequel teases.

But it’s not just they-don’t-make-em-like-they-used-to nostalgia that makes Ocean’s Eleven look better with age. Revisited today, this popcorn entertainment looks more like a main event in the mainstream hot-streak phase of Soderbergh’s career—and one with a stronger, more direct connection to the movies Soderbergh would make for the next 20 years. In retrospect, the success of both Traffic and Erin Brockovich feel like Soderbergh’s tickets out of Oscars country; he’s never been nominated for anything else since. (In a truly bizarre flex, his only two directing nominations happened in the same year.) In the context of his greater career, it’s now easier to see why Brockovich and Traffic worked for the Academy: They’re prestige pictures that lack the playfulness of his best work. Even Traffic’s color-coded triptych of interrelated stories feels a little basic in its experimentation.

Ocean’s Eleven, though, finds Soderbergh absolutely reveling in his process, an approach informing much of his subsequent work. (Despite its legal-drama genre, Brockovich is lacking in this regard; it’s a little too repetitive and flabby to feel like an expert dissection of the real-life figure’s achievements.) At first, it feels like Ocean’s Eleven is full of asides—introductions, character gags, intentionally byzantine detours—and while that’s technically true, Soderbergh expertly builds each of his perfectly edited scenes and scenelets into his broader design. It all feeds into the caper. Carrying an elaborate plan through to its logical yet surprising end is basically the blueprint of Soderbergh’s career, and it’s especially delightful to see him trying this out on a glossy, big-studio heist picture.

And despite that gloss, the movie’s style connects to Soderbergh’s later and mostly smaller movies, too. The yellow glow of the casino and hotel interiors would intensify in his later work, but it’s used as an eye-catching accent here, a way of making the Las Vegas scenery both vivid and a little bit otherworldly, maybe even faintly nauseating. When Danny idly asks “why do they always paint hallways that color?” during some recon, he’s talking about taupe, but he could be referring to the sickly yellow interiors of The Informant!, Let Them All Talk, Magic Mike, Contagion, and others. It’s hard to imagine a number of Soderbergh’s best movies without Ocean’s Eleven: The “Ocean’s 7-11” thievery of Logan Lucky, the rug-pulling of The Informant!, the retro-yet-modern intricacies of No Sudden Move all build further on its heist architecture, adding heartfelt emotion, satire and social commentary, respectively.

If there’s any legitimate knock against Ocean’s Eleven, it’s that the movie knows its own angles so well that it doesn’t have much room for emotional resonance. The love story, of sorts, between Danny and Tess has a nicely bittersweet tang while fully lacking the heat or longing of, say, Out of Sight—still his best movie, even if Ocean’s Eleven might feel like his definitive one. But some poignancy too, has arrived with age. That memorable late-movie scene with the crew (minus Danny and Tess) standing together at the Bellagio fountains before they slowly depart, one by one, hits a little different now that two delightful members of the ensemble have left us: Bernie Mac, who died not long after Ocean’s Thirteen came out, and Carl Reiner, who passed just last year. There will be no getting the gang back together, not really. Back in 2001, Soderbergh wasn’t milking this moment; maybe for some it even played like an unearned bit of reflection—another form of a victory lap. In 2021, that moment, coupled with the movie’s actual ending where Danny, Rusty and Tess drive off tailed by Benedict’s henchmen, is a poignant reminder of life’s fleeting pleasures—which is to say, all of them. What might have seemed minor and soufflé-light upon its release now feels strangely truthful. Maybe everyone could use one more.

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.

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