Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Money Monster is a very sober crime thriller about fiscal malfeasance starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts. I would take you back to the first time these two stars appeared together: malfeasance there was aplenty, but not so much sobriety.

1960's Ocean's Eleven is the exact kind of movie we should be remaking. It's got a crackerjack concept: an ex-con and his ex-con buddies devise a ludicrous, ambitious scheme to steal from five Las Vegas casinos simultaneously. And that concept is completely wasted on the finished project, a sleepy exercise in watching as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and their buddies and hangers-on seem to be vaguely annoyed that this camera crew keeps demanding that they take a break from the booze and women of their desert paradise to recite some lines of dialogue in a totally perfunctory way. For a movie that's all about the coolness of the Rat Pack and midcentury Vegas, Ocean's Eleven is fatally un-fun and sluggish, and those are two horrible things for this scenario to be.

Flash-forward 41 years: after a decade as a beloved indie darling and increasingly bravura stylist, Steven Soderbergh has just exploded his way into the mainstream with Erin Brockovich and Traffic, a pair which made him the first person since Michael Curtiz in 1938 to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar twice in the same year. For his next trick as a fully-fledged Hollywood Auteur, and to kick off the famed "one for me, one for the studios" pattern that would dominate the rest of his career, Soderbergh trained his attention on a remake of that very same Ocean's Eleven, written by Ted Griffin, and with a cast that's as close as you'll get to a 21st Century Rat Pack: George Clooney and Brad Pitt, and a bunch of top-shelf people who wanted to hang out with them, including Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner, Elliot Gould, Casey Affleck (at this time, still just "Ben's little brother"), Andy Garcia, and Julia Roberts, the last of whom is given a winking "Introducing" card in the credits, which is not, I think, just a throwaway gag. Though it's a delightful throwaway gag, at that. But one thing we know now that we hadn't entirely figured out in 2001 is that Soderbergh absolutely loves playing around with movie stars, seeing what he can do to bend them out of shape and reform them and play our expectations of them against the material of the film. Ironically flagging that (though not nearly as ironically as it would be flagged three years later in Ocean's Twelve) is part of the game.

Griffin's new script slightly narrows down the ambition - gang ringleader Danny Ocean (Clooney) only wants to rob from three casinos this time around, given that they all share the same vault deep underneath the concrete surface of the Las Vegas Strip - and gives it a much more level-headed, character-based reason for being. This is not, ultimately, a movie about the desire for money. It is a movie about using money as a carrot to get ten other guys to help screw over the guy who hurt your feelings. As we learn pretty early on, Danny doesn't just want to steal from three casinos, he wants to steal from the three casinos owned by Terry Benedict (Garcia). As we learn around midway through, he wants to steal from Benedict for the very specific reason that Benedict is now dating Danny's ex-wife, Tess (Roberts). As we learn at the end, SPOILER ALERT for a 15-year-old movie where the trip is much more the point than the destination, the caper is as much about putting Benedict in a position to show Tess what a dick he is so she'll break up with him as it is about making a giant pile of money.

Mind you, this is all running in the background of the movie, and really not very much for the first long stretch of it. If Roberts has 10 total minutes of screentime, I'd be astonished. However, it is very much running in the background, and as much as anything else, I think that's what makes Ocean's Eleven '01 so much more satisfying than its 1960 predecessor: there are actual emotions involved, not just an overriding sense of of the movie stars' own inimitable style. That extends beyond the central issue of Danny versus his wounded sense of romanticism. Or indeed, it starts beyond that. While this is a caper film, with the necessarily complex system of plotting out a crime, executing it with the precision of a Swiss watch, and making ingenious corrections as things go even slightly out-of-whack - and it is a fucking magnificent caper film! The 21st Century has not produced a better one, at least not in English, and I'd stack this against even the very best of the best of the genre's high point in the 1960s - it is even more a film about character interactions. The eleven members involved in the heist are clearly marked out as personalities as much as or more than they're marked out for a skill set, and a huge amount of the almost incomprehensible amounts of pleasure the film offers comes along directly as a result of watching two- or three-way conversations play out: the snotty Malloy brothers (Affleck, Scott Caan) constantly sniping at each other and finding every possible way to make the other feel insulted; the way Tess's interactions with Danny use clipped brittleness to hide red-hot rage; Danny and his Number 2 man Rusty Ryan (Pitt) juggling half-sentences with each other to impress Gould's Reuben Tishkoff; Bernie Mac interacting with anybody else for any reason, particularly his laser-intense, shaggy-dog performance of a scene where his character negotiates for vans while chatting about hand lotion like a serial killer. The heart of it all, no two ways about it, is the peerless interaction between Clooney and Pitt, playing Danny and Rusty as an old married couple who aren't at their best but are far from their worst: Pitt specifically plays his character as the not-quite-endlessly patient mom on a family sitcom, putting up with Danny's goofiness with just enough of a sharp edge to make sure we notice.

It is absolutely the case that all of the things that make the film up - the precise mechanics of its sufficiently-impossible-to-be-plausible caper, the jogging banter of the dialogue, the non-stop prettiness of all the people onscreen - make Ocean's Eleven a rather fluffy affair, all sugar and empty calories. I do not deny this. But as anyone who has baked knows, there's a lot of room between a misshapen lump of frosting and cake, and a towering edifice of curlicuing frosting in a rainbow of colors, multiple tiers, and sculptures made from sugar glass. Ocean's Eleven is one of the greatest dessert courses in contemporary cinema. As an exercise in radiant star persona, it is maybe the single best throwback to golden-age Hollywood produced in the last quarter of a century: it is exactly that kind of "this old thing?" tossed-off entertainment that requires a superhuman wisdom about what movies are and what movies do and why, and how to entertain an audience - really entertaining them, putting on a real show with glitz and glamor but also heart and wit and brains, not just throwing indifferently-framed explosions and a pulverising sound mix at them and calling it a day.

As the magician responsible for all the film's tricks, Soderbergh nailed it. Common wisdom calls this the "studio" film he made to keep palms greased and people affectionately recalling his name before he made the willfully anti-commercial Full Frontal and the costly anti-blockbuster Solaris in 2002. I really don't see how that holds. Ocean's Eleven isn't make-work, it is something that happens because of a series of very specific, detailed choices. The film's aesthetic alone is every bit the work of unconventional manipulation that had turned into Soderbergh's calling card by the end of the 1990s: its use of solid-color lighting is right in line with The Limey (Soderbergh shot Ocean's Eleven under his regular pseudonym, "Peter Andrews"; he did not shoot The Limey, Ed Lachman did, but it's the same mentality), creating an overall oscillation in mood rather than blatantly color-coding, as happened in Traffic. There are mostly only four colors in the movie: ice-cold blue, cherry red, hot yellow, and an austere white that almost feels like a special case of blue. One can without too much trouble map the colors onto specific feelings: blue is for cool, intellectual reserve; red heightened emotion; yellow for greed, glitz, and superficiality, the hallmarks of Vegas. But better than anything the colors do in any particular scene is the way that the colors as a whole keep the film swerving and flowing and being stylish in a way that keeps stimulating us rather than lulling us into a decadent nap.

It's damned experimental for a gigantic box office hit (so, for that matter, is Stephen Mirrone's editing, with some amazing matches on discontinuous action, and a few snazzy, fun gimmicks), but that's all part of the fun. In 1960, Ocean's Eleven was a damp misfire because it gave audiences the kind of sleek cool that they knew they wanted. In 2001, Ocean's Eleven was a miracle because it gave audiences the kind of sleek cool that they probably didn't even know existed, while still providing a greatly satisfying dose of fizzy movie energy on a model as old as the talkies. It is pure joy, made at the highest conceivable level of craft, both celebrating the garish world it inhabits and making it out to be hollow and a world of violent buffoons. It is rich and indulgent and I would hate it if all movies, or even all Soderbergh movies, were exactly like it, but as a singular piece of early-'00s filmmaking, it's one for the ages.

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