“Ten oughta do it, don’t you think? You think we need one more? You think we need one more. All right, we’ll get one more.” – Danny Ocean
Steven Soderbergh’s smart, twisty, ludicrously entertaining Ocean’s Eleven came out twenty years ago this week, a fact I can hardly believe (I still think it should be the 1990s for some reason). Ocean’s Eleven is my favorite film of 2001, by a long shot. The performances, the snappy dialogue (the screenplay was written by Ted Griffin), and the brisk pacing (seriously, there is not an ounce of fat in this film) all add up to a movie that delights and entertains from the first frame to the last.
Soderbergh was coming off a pretty awesome 2000; two of his films – Traffic and Erin Brockovich – were released that year to much critical acclaim, a box office total of more than $460 million, and a combined ten Oscar nominations and five wins (Traffic won Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing; Julie Roberts earned the Best Actress prize for her endearing portrayal of the titular character in Erin Brockovich).
The point is, Steven Soderbergh was riding high in Hollywood, and after more than ten years as an indie darling, he was now on the A-list. He could choose any project he wanted, and what Soderbergh wanted was to make a film with zero social importance. Ocean’s Eleven felt like a perfect fit, and Soderbergh set about assembling an absurdly talented and likeable cast for his retelling of the “Rat Pack” classic.
- Danny Ocean – a handsome, charming con man played by the handsome, charming George Clooney (honestly, could anyone else have played this character?). Danny is looking to make the score of a lifetime – with a heaping side of revenge.
- Rusty Ryan – Danny’s friend and right-hand man, Rusty (Brad Pitt) runs logistics for the team. Pitt suggested to Soderbergh that a busy man like Rusty would always be eating on the go, so in almost every scene Rusty is consuming food or a drink. For the scene where Rusty and Linus watch Tess descend down the staircase, Pitt reportedly ate about forty shrimp.
- Linus Caldwell – pickpocket and son of legendary conman Bobby Caldwell, Linus was almost played by Mark Wahlberg. Fortunately, Walbergh had a scheduling conflict with Planet of the Apes and chose to star in the latter (he chose…poorly), and Matt Damon landed the role.
- Basher Tarr – the munitions man. Some undisclosed behind-the-scenes stuff caused Don Cheadle to request his name be taken off the film, but he returned for the sequels nonetheless. Now about that absolutely terrible Cockney accent. Oof.
- Virgil and Turk Malloy – drivers and mechanics. The brothers were initially going to be played by Owen and Luke Wilson, but the two decided to devote their energy to The Royal Tenenbaums; Casey Affleck and Scott Caan were cast instead.
- Frank Catton – the dealer, played by the late, great Bernie Mac.
- Reuben Tishkoff – the money man, Reuben (Elliott Gould) is retired but Danny and Rusty talk him into joining the team by mentioning Terry Benedict, who had previously muscled Reuben out of Vegas.
- Saul Bloom – the old pro, played by the legendary Carl Reiner, who was hired five days before filming his first scene.
- Livingston Dell – technical support and surveillance (Eddie Jemison in just his second film role).
- “The Amazing” Yen – the greaseman, portrayed by real life professional acrobat/contortionist Shaobo Qin. Qin has never appeared in a movie outside of the Oceans franchise.
The main character outside of “The Eleven” is Tess Ocean, Danny’s ex-wife and the current girlfriend of casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). Benedict is Danny’s target, but Danny has neglected to divulge Benedict’s relationship status to the rest of the team. Tess is played by Julia Roberts, whose chemistry with Clooney is off-the-charts. Surprisingly, Roberts and Clooney had never met in real life, but George was certain Roberts was the right person for the role. Having just become the first woman to command $20 million for a movie (for Erin Brockovich), Roberts was charmed by Clooney, who sent her a $20 bill along with a note that said “I heard you’re getting 20 a picture”.
Another pair with amazing chemistry is Clooney and Pitt. One of my favorite scenes has Pitt’s Rusty teaching poker to a group of actors playing themselves, including Topher Grace (who’d co-starred in Traffic) and Joshua Jackson, which leads to this fantastic sequence where Rusty and Danny con the gullible group out of several thousand dollars.
An aside: actors LOVE working with Soderbergh. He’s known for his relaxed but swift directorial style; he’ll change a scene’s set-up on the fly, but you better get your lines in one take because Soderbergh is already moving on the next shot. This freewheeling style has actors lining up to make film after film with him. Matt Damon, with nine, has the most Soderbergh collaborations under his belt. In second place, with seven Soderbergh collabs, is Joe Chrest (I know, who? Best known as Stranger Things‘ Ted Wheeler, Chrest made his film debut in Soderbergh’s King of the Hill). Several more actors have made at least five films with Soderbergh, including Damon’s Ocean’s co-stars Clooney, Roberts and Cheadle, as well as Channing Tatum. The actors’ love for each other and for Soderbergh is likely the reason for the absolutely unnecessary but still pretty enjoyable Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen.
Ocean’s Eleven was the fifth highest-grossing film of 2001 (and Soderbergh’s most commercially successful film ever), with a worldwide box office total of $450 million, and twenty years on it holds up beautifully. From the costumes and production design (both of which were nominated for their respective guild’s year-end awards) to the jazzy score by David Holmes (plus a brilliant pop music soundtrack, with songs like “A Little Less Conversation” by Elvis Presley) to the crackling chemistry of the cast, Ocean’s Eleven still hits all the right notes.
Postscript – just a few examples of Rusty eating food: