Ocean’s Thirteen is not a masterpiece, but it might have been. Ocean’s Twelve got close. It was a very exciting movie.
The Ocean’s movies are exciting because they take as their subject the actors who are playing around inside of them. It makes them either clever or grotesque, depending on your perspective. The best example of this is in the best film of the series, Ocean’s Twelve, in the scene on the airplane in which Matt Damon approaches George Clooney and Brad Pitt to plead for a bigger part in the heist. His character doesn’t want to play in the junior leagues anymore. Effectively, he’s saying “I can do this, I can be one of you." He’s playing an ingénue thief in a gang of veteran heist-pullers, but really he’s playing himself, begging to be as big a star as Clooney and Pitt. It’s a cute scene, a filler in a film of fluff, but it vibrates, and it’s funny.
The reason it’s funny is that Damon pulls it off so well. He pulls it off so well because there is no distance between the fictional scene and the actual Hollywood moment. Which is the reason it vibrates. This kind of circularity prevents the Ocean’s movies from becoming profound (from being masterpieces), but it’s by running in circles that they hit their marks so well on each rotation. It’s hit to good effect in the beginning of Twelve as well, when Pitt is introduced, slumming it as a motel proprietor, trying to keep TV-to-film up-and-comer Topher Grace from tearing up his room.
Twelve is rife with this stuff, and it’s quite clever if it doesn't nauseate you. The real cringe-tester is the finale wherein Julia Roberts literally pretends to be Julia Roberts. Here Soderbergh brings the meta-theme out in the open after teasing it for humor (on the plane, in the motel) and makes it what the last act is all about. The gamble makes Twelve either a flower in full bloom or an ugly open wound. But it's honest, because it lets these stars do exactly what they want to do – goof off and make big bucks – and has fun with it.
The Ocean’s movies are fulfilling exactly what they are supposed to, and not in a condescending way where they’re making fun of Hollywood. They celebrate Hollywood in all its insignificance but don’t miss out on the fun of the glitz. Surprisingly, there is no mockery, which is a difficult thing to pull off – it’s an awareness-without-distance kind of thing. It’s totally minor, but it’s also weird and sneaky, which is what makes it great, even in light of its modest ambitions.
If you’re not convinced, it might be because this all sounds like a lot of praise for the oldest bore in the movie business – Hollywood making a show of patting itself on the back (think Oscar night). But I don’t think that’s quite what the Ocean’s movies are. A little context might help, like the relationship of Soderbergh’s smaller films to his Hollywood ones. We can see in his small movies that he's very interested in finding a way to test the limits of the movie medium, and only intermittently successful at it. Still, a quick skip through his non-Hollywood stuff shows how hard he’s trying. Solaris and Limey are both strong, terse, formally assured little movies. Full Frontal is a bad movie but a sincere effort to peel back a layer of filmmaking and test how hard he can make you believe in something superficial. Schizopolis is a working-through of his own psychological complexes, a venture into how interior a comedy can be and still get laughs. If for no other reason, Kafka is worthy because it’s the problematic movie he chose to make when he could have done anything he wanted (after the success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape). The Good German is bland at best, but in making a movie with the technological limitations of 1945 he seemed to be saying that movies can be about the way they're made. Which is, of course, very similar to the way the Ocean’s movies are about themselves. (To finish out my take on his small stuff I still need to see Bubble.)
What’s funny about someone who’s made so many little movies is that he actually works the best in the glossy big budget context. So, in considering his “arty” pictures in relation to his Ocean’s movies, his body of work gathers this kind of reversal effect: he’s more artful when he’s not making an art film. Even detractors note how breezy his movies are. It’s as though when he has a big budget, or has to deliver a big film for a big studio (Traffic, Erin Brockovich, the Ocean’s movies), he’s thinking, "Ho hum, should I make the best Hollywood movie of the year, a surefire blockbuster, or both?”
Then when he makes Solaris or Good German he's really trying to make it work and can't quite pull it off. The sincerity and what it produces adds context to the Ocean’s movies, and Twelve is where that tension is really churning, and everyone's having the most fun, and the story – pulling an unpullable number of heists in a sliver of time – gives Soderbergh the excuse to gallivant all over the globe. The movie benefits from the way that the pond-hopping antics of the crew emphasize the exaggerated excess of the film.
In Ocean’s Thirteen, Damon has perhaps reached the superstardom that he was begging for on the plane back in Ocean’s Twelve. But the new movie still plays things like he’s stalled at the cusp, and it doesn’t quite come off. Remember when Conan O’Brien first got his talk show, and he’d make jokes about what a nobody he was? It was very funny. Then Conan got very popular, and he was still making those jokes, and it didn’t work, and for a few seasons those jokes were sprinkled awkwardly throughout many of his shows. He’s since gotten over it, but it’s the same kind of problem that infects Ocean’s Thirteen, so it comes up short. Soderbergh will probably continue to come up short of a masterpiece. But there wouldn’t be such fascinating tension in his work if he ever figured out how to pull one off.