Ocean's Thirteen is absolutely not a masterpiece. It's something far more useful: the first major summer film of 2007 that isn't a waste of time. Which is ironic, given that it's essentially just a genial time-waster.

As I've mentioned several dozen times here and elsewhere, I fully liked 2004's Ocean's Twelve. I would come much closer to calling it a masterpiece; it's not one of the great caper films of all time; it's not even better than Ocean's Eleven (although all three are a sight better then the Rat Pack original). I reiterate this because I think that it's important to understand that I'm primed to like these films indiscriminately, and to make sure that nobody thinks I'm leveling some sort of horrible, weighty criticism when I saw that on balance, I think that Thirteen is not as good as Twelve, and isn't that just becoming the theme of 2007?

It took both a moment, and days of reflection to figure out what's off with the newest film: Eleven and Twelve followed nearly identical patterns of problem > plan > prepare > execute. For reasons that make perfect sense from a commercial standpoint, screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien decided to tweak this for maximum high-conceptiness, and in the process, they took out a bit of soul; Thirteen is all execution, with the problem sprinkled in through flashbacks for the first ten or fifteen minutes, and the planning largely abandoned to implication.

Unfortunately, to these eyes at least, the planning was the best part of the stories. Oh, sure, like any good caper it's fun to watch the cleverness unfold; but also like any good caper, a big part of the fun is watching all the details you already knew click into place, and keeping an eye out for the big climactic reveal of the one big detail that you weren't privy to that makes the whole affair a flawless jaunt.

Although we pick up a lot along the way, Thirteen is basically that moment over and over again, never as exciting as it should be because it's not nestled in a whole lot of business that we already mostly expected. It's sort of like having a whole lot of orgasms without any sex or foreplay, and that's such a ridiculously bad metaphor that I have no choice but to leave it in.

In this entry, Danny Ocean (George Clooney), Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) and their band of thieves and conmen are out to revenge themselves against Willie Bank (Al Pacino, being resolutely unhammy for the first time all decade), for screwing over one of their own in a shady deal to build the ugliest structure in Las Vegas. The scheme involves bleeding Bank's casino reserves dry on its opening night by rigging every game in the place.

Not that this is important, of course. There's pretty much one and only one reason to sink time into the Ocean's films, and that is to watch a whole lot of famous pretty people being classy and witty for a couple of hours - they're not movies so much as they are filmed cocktail parties. Now, one can find this agreeable or not, but it's probably a losing battle to argue that it's not the case. These films are only cool: cool for the old-school movie star charm that Clooney gets to show off as Danny Ocean more than in all of his other roles combined, cool because director and cinematographer Steven Soderbergh never met a pointlessly flash use of oversaturated color that he didn't like. For some, this is enough. For some, it's not very cool at all; Soderbergh is an empty stylist and the actors are sleepwalking.

I don't agree with those points, although it's clear that the threads are just starting to show in Ocean's Thirteen. It's impossible to shake the feeling that we've seen this before; and while it remains fun it loses the freshness that all empty-headed entertainments ought to aspire to. Soderbergh, for his part, keeps things peppy, introducing extensive split screens and floating numbers into his already fat back of stylistic quirks, and I would like to take a moment to say how much I love this man, that he puts as much - more! - effort into the apparent "make work" films in his canon as his "personal" films. Blurring the idea of what is or is not a "personal" film, maybe. But love him, or find him shallow and arrogant, you cannot deny that he puts in the effort.

But the rest of the film, maybe not so much. I don't want to belabor my problems with the script, but I'll briefly restate: it's a tiny bit more antic and a tiny bit more outlandish than the first two, not so much as to become shrill but enough that it's not quite so laid back, wherein "laid back" has always been a chief draw of the series.

The actors, meanwhile...I mean, it's not that they're bad. I don't know if anything can make some of these people bad. But too many of them don't get much to do, and that translates into sleepiness, and that begins to seep in around the edges, and ultimately it looks like Pitt and Clooney aren't having quite as much fun in this film. Matt Damon, happily, not the case. He has more energy here than in either of the preceding movies; but he is alone. Pacino and fellow newcomer Ellen Barkin, in their unexpected and frankly undesired post-Sea of Love reunion have the same sort of lazy fun that everybody else had in the first two except for Catherine Zeta-Jones in Twelve, and that's either your bag or it isn't.

Ultimately, I don't think anybody is going to be surprised by Ocean's Thirteen. It's exactly what the trailers promised, and it's precisely what you'd expect after the first two. Maybe not the high-stakes superduperness that usually gets sold as a Summer Film, but that means that it's not as annoying and droning as those films usually are. It's fluff. But it's fun fluff. And it's fluff that doesn't unspool for half-an-hour past its earned runtime, which is always welcome.

Reviews in this series
Ocean's Eleven (Soderbergh, 2001)
Ocean's Twelve (Soderbergh, 2004)
Ocean's Thirteen (Soderbergh, 2007)
Ocean's Eight (Ross, 2018)