The trailer for “Ocean’s Twelve” boasts, “Yes, they’re all back,” indicating that you never expected a group of this extreme star wattage to work in an ensemble piece again. Julia Roberts listed last? No way! Brad Pitt in a supporting role? I don’t believe it! But weren’t all of these actors pretty high up on the Hollywood food chain when the remake of “Ocean’s 11” came out in 2001? Warner Bros. is trying to make “Ocean’s Twelve” seem like a pop-culture event, like it’s the second coming of the Rat Pack — as if such a thing were possible.
Taken individually, the cast of “Ocean’s Twelve” (with the possible exception of the great Carl Reiner) would struggle to fill the well-polished shoes of the band of merry men (and the occasional woman) that Frank Sinatra led in the ’60s. We will grant that George Clooney may be as close as we’ve got to a Sinatra today. With his laid-back charm, casual good looks and willingness to slug a paparazzo every now and then, Clooney certainly invokes the charisma of Ol’ Blue Eyes.
Don Cheadle likewise possesses the cool of Sammy Davis Jr., perhaps channeled when he portrayed the pre-self-parody Sam in the 1998 TV movie “The Rat Pack.” But the group resemblance stops there.
While Brad Pitt’s character of Rusty Ryan has a similar relationship to Danny Ocean as Dean Martin’s Sam Harmon in the 1960 “Ocean’s 11,” Pitt is no Dean-o. There’s nothing retro or suave about Rusty’s snarky, postmodern arrogance. And who could Matt Damon be correlative to? Certainly not to Peter Lawford (maybe Bernie Mac fits that bill). Damon is Joey Bishop at best. As for Julia Roberts — she may be America’s sweetheart, but when it comes to playing a no-nonsense broad who can hold her own against a rakish cad like Danny Ocean, she’s no Angie Dickinson.
We acknowledge that these comparisons are unfair, that none of these actors is trying to conjure up images of any of those old Hollywood icons. However, director Steven Soderbergh is attempting to create that kind of cool, natural, believable camaraderie among Danny Ocean’s eleven/twelve that was the watermark of the Rat Pack, both onscreen and in real life. So, sad to say, when taken as a group, the new pack pales even further. Clooney, Pitt, Roberts, Damon, et al., regardless of how well-scripted their banter, are such overexposed tabloid fodder that it’s difficult to lose them in their characters individually, let alone when they share screen time. Stories of the cast bonding offscreen feel more like the concoctions of Warner’s publicity department than actual grist.
In contrast, Frank, Dean, Sammy and the rest of the Pack were a constellation of stars who not only shone brightly as individuals but created an entirely new dynamic together. Despite the fact that their legendary stage shows of the early 1960s were heavily scripted and didn’t change much from night to night, the camaraderie and chemistry made the performances feel fresh and exciting every time. Of course, it didn’t hurt that you had three of pop music’s greatest practitioners belting out some great songs between the banter.
The feeling that these guys were all hanging out together 24/7 carried through to the Pack’s films as well: loose, fun pictures like “Robin and the 7 Hoods,” “Sergeants 3” and, mostly, “Ocean’s 11.” A much darker (albeit less plausible) caper flick than the Clooney remake, the 1960 movie had Danny Ocean reuniting his old WWII Army buddies to rob five casinos on the Vegas Strip at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Yes, it was a swaggering, ludicrous vanity piece, but the utterly naturalistic interplay between the actors made you feel like you were in the room with them, plannin’ a heist, gettin’ a massage from a dame, knockin’ back a highball. You could get lost in Sinatra’s Vegas far more easily than in Clooney’s.
We’re not saying that George Clooney and Julia Roberts are bigger icons than Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. It’s just that they’re ubiquitous. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, we’re inundated with “news” stories about every move they make, personally and professionally. Yes, the media covered stars back in the ’60s as well, but there were far fewer outlets. Today, when a star of Roberts’ magnitude tries to do something other than play herself, we see so many stories about it in the media that when we finally see the movie in which she plays the bald, one-legged, mentally challenged 18th-century metallurgist (we made this up), we can’t get the hype out of our heads. We’re aware the whole time that we’re watching an actor “stretch,” and we never get caught up in the fiction.
The bottom line is that it’s a different era. We live in a time when, thanks to technology and a seemingly infinite number of entertainment choices, the entire history of culture is contemporary. Chris Botti and Miles Davis compete for jazz CD sales. The new-release DVD shelf has “Dodgeball” sitting next to “The Buster Keaton Collection.” You can flip back and forth between “The Real Gilligan’s Island” and the original sitcom on cable. Thus, we can’t help but compare the apple that is “Ocean’s Twelve” to Sinatra’s orange (his favorite color, by the way), “Ocean’s 11.” It’s utterly unfair to anyone creating pop culture today, but let’s hope that it makes them try a little harder.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Ocean’s Twelve.”
Visit Movies on MTV.com for more from Hollywood, including news, interviews, trailers and more.