After 20 years, Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven remains one of those flicks you can’t help but watch time and time again. From its classy cast of characters to the low-key vibe permeating throughout David Holmes’ score, everything about this grade-A production screams cool. In all honesty, while others — including Soderbergh — have tried, none have been able to replicate Ocean Eleven’s pitch-perfect blend of laid-back charm, restrained comedy, and overt self-mockery.
It’s a blast from start to finish. Critics mostly applauded the flick, while audiences went gaga for the all-star vehicle to the tune of $450 million worldwide. At the time, it made sense. Everyone in the flick, namely George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Don Cheadle, and Julia Roberts was either an A-lister or a star on the rise. In those days, that counted for something.
You see kids, while superstars do indeed exist in the modern cinema world, back in the day, actors/actresses were damn-near immortal. The 90s in particular saw a flurry of superstardom peppered with the likes of Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Will Smith, Kevin Costner, Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, etc. — all big-name talents with the power to carry a movie to fame and fortune on their mug alone.
Nowadays, you get the occasional Johnny Depp or Robert Downey Jr. vehicle, but there aren’t as many superstars as there used to be. Some of the top-grossing films of the 90s, namely Titanic, Forrest Gump, Men in Black, Mrs. Doubtfire, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Batman Forever (among others) were high concept pictures that boasted big-name talent. The Sixth Sense would have likely found success one way or another, but the addition of Bruce Willis shot M. Night Shyamalan’s ghost pic into the stratosphere. Can you imagine anyone else playing Forrest Gump or enjoying Independence Day without Will Smith?
For comparison’s sake, the top films of the last two decades consist of Avatar, Jurassic World, Star Wars, Pixar films, and a bunch of superhero extravaganzas buoyed more by the characters than the actors playing them. People love Chris Evans, sure, but would fewer people see an Avengers movie if Captain America were played by a different actor?
All this to say, Ocean’s Eleven marked the beginning of the end for the all-star blockbuster celebrity team-up vehicle. Yeah, yeah, other films have packed popular stars into a high-concept formula — such as Knives Out — but none have been as successful or wildly marketed.
Remember the Oprah boost? When an entire cast would appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote their film? I recall watching the famed host interview the entire cast of Ghostbusters II way back in 1989!
Now, Ocean’s Eleven had the rare distinction of successfully combining a ton of talent with a high concept premise. This isn’t one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-them celebrity vehicles featuring glorified cameos ala Harry Potter. No, everyone in Ocean’s Eleven has a part to play, however big or small — that’s part of its charm, and a good reason the advertising for the 2004 sequel Ocean’s Twelve made sure to let audiences know that everyone was back.
In other words, there was no clear-cut star. Clooney, Pitt, Damon, and Roberts were clearly the top-tier talent, but their roles were played in equal measure alongside the other cast mates, which is why we get amazing bits like this from the late, great Bernie Mac:
Every scene with the “Mormon twins” also stick out:
Even veteran actor Carl Reiner gets in on the fun with a handful of noteworthy scenes, compiled together for your viewing pleasure on YouTube:
Still, and this might sound contradictory, my favorite bits hail from Pitt’s fast food-loving Rusty. Pitt has obviously matured as an actor and even famously out-cooled even his coolest roles with his awesome turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but in Ocean’s Eleven, the man practically owns every scene he’s in without even trying.
Then there’s Clooney and Roberts who sparkle as the ever-bickering Danny and Tess, chewing through dialogue like Tracy and Hepburn.
Another piece of cinematic gold: the ridiculing of one Matt Damon long before Jimmy Kimmel picked up the reins. In Ocean’s Eleven, the pre-Bourne star is treated less like Matt friggin’ Damon and more like that kid brother who won’t stop following you and your friends around the playground.
The biggest con Ocean’s Eleven pulled was convincing the audience it was watching an actual heist movie. Really, the heist comes secondary to star power on screen. We don’t really care whether or not Danny’s crew pulls off the herculean feat of stealing $160 million from Terry Benedict. In this instance, the journey is more fun than the actual payoff.
Though, said payoff culminates in a refreshingly subdued send-off that, again, gives each character (save for Danny) a chance to shine.
No, they really don’t make them like this anymore. And how could they? Audiences aren’t as enamored with celebrity culture as they once were. And while superstar team-ups still occur, none are quite as grand or successful as Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, which remains a high bar for the superstar team-up vehicle.