There is no more sweetly conflict-free scene in the Steven Soderbergh filmography than George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez—escaped convict and federal agent, respectively—flirting over an intimate table for two in a Detroit high-rise restaurant in Out of Sight. There is nothing really at stake. Soderbergh is not a director who trades in conflict or consequences. He trades in appealing certainties, though few of his movies deliver them in such tinkling abundance as the ones in the Ocean’s franchise. The newest, Ocean’s Thirteen, has the same everything that made the first two installments such entertaining trifles: the same dry humor and droll repartee, the same all-star cast lounging in classically posed Tatiesque tableaux. The same sheen of expensive suits. The same buddy chemistry and warmly rising man-love. The same massed stares of detached bemusement. The same showoffy handheld camera look and jumpy action montages fetchingly cut to the same percolating salsa-funk soundtrack. The same funny good guys and a couple of pleasant bad guys and, most importantly, no girls hanging around ruining everything.
Buddies. The Ocean’s movies are all about buddies, being with the boys, renewing manly bonds: the movie equivalent of hungover greasy breakfast banter when everyone seems twice as funny, affirming, heroic, puffing each others’ bellows. Ocean’s Thirteen emanates a Speed Stick cloud of male bonding pheromones, far more powerful than even the medicated neck-patch Matt Damon uses to distract/seduce Ellen Barkin’s imperious casino superintendent. Damon’s character must carry out his duties as a sexual decoy dispatched to keep Barkin’s inner nymphomaniac well away from the boys-club treehouse, and he does not look psyched about it. The valiant delaying action he fights to keep Barkin at bay is not, one suspects, for fear of a passionate kiss dislodging his nose-putty. It’s just that he’d much rather be with the boys.
There have been female love interests in these Ocean’s movies, you say. Yes, but only sailors’ girls, the girls in every port. The sailors love them ardently but superficially, and only between lusty high-seas adventures, promptly forgetting them as soon as they’re off rounding the Horn with the fellas again. Ocean’s Thirteen presents the same hermetically sealed guy universe as a pirate ship or a frontier army outpost with none of the tedium. Like sailors and soldiers, Danny Ocean and his boys even dress each other up for occasional dancing and theatrical revues; the viewer feels a similar pleasure in watching Don Cheadle, already sporting a Cockney accent, impersonate an Evel Knievel-type daredevil or Carl Reiner pose as a jolly Englishman. And what about the movie’s superabundance of stick-on biker moustaches? There is, again, really nothing at stake in any of this except campy enjoyment.
Most men, at some point in their lives, wind up on reservations of their formerly boundless guydom, shrinking preserves where they can leave messes and pretend they’re still running things. Not so Danny Ocean’s band of charming thieves: someone says hey, let’s rob this new casino, and they’re on the scene seconds later—no childcare issues, family nights or co-ed baby showers to weasel out of. So complete is their emancipation, and the franchise’s emancipation, from the world of women and domesticity that the robbers treasure little traces of femininity in each other: the way Danny Ocean cries watching “Oprah” giveaways, the lyrical poems Cheadle’s Basher writes Elliott Gould’s Reuben to bring him around from his catatonic stupor. The vicarious charge of the Ocean’s movies goes well beyond money and adventure. Real men relish the feminine in one another, only few will admit it. We need platonic homoeroticism to normalize male intimacy at a safe on-screen distance, and no one delivers like Danny Ocean and the gang.
Sports teams, submarine crews, bands of thieves—anything teamlike makes good cover for intimacy and latent impulses, what with all the esprit de corps and counting on the other guy, in some cases entrusting one’s life to him. The Ocean’s movies portray a team that anyone would want to be on just for the camaraderie and sense of belonging: old and young, black and white, everyone highly trained and narrowly specialized, and totally enamored of each other, a perfect boys-only microcosm. Within this fraternity there are further platonic pairings like Clooney’s Ocean with Brad Pitt’s Rusty, Scott Caan’s Turk with Casey Affleck’s Virgil. That Caan and Affleck portray brothers is beside the point: the man-love of Ocean’s Thirteen is all in the actors, not the characters.
Plot is almost superfluous. At any rate, you don’t have to pay it the least bit of attention. Pay too much, in fact, and you’ll see only gaping holes in logic, like how did these guys arrange overnight delivery of a thousand-ton tunnel borer, and is the whole simulated-earthquake gambit to empty the casino the least bit plausible? In classic caper-movie style, the robbers chalk-talk you through the scheme at the beginning, and everyone is so specialized that there’s no need to worry about anything going too wrong or nobody knowing how to fix it if it does. So you can just sit back and bro out vicariously, letting the exposition do all the work in the certainty that everything will work out in the end. It’s an Ocean’s movie, far more sophisticated than your average summer blockbuster, but no less laden with reassuring certainties.