I adore Ocean’s Eleven. I teach it as the opening every semester of my Film Analysis class, and I love pointing out Soderbergh’s design to the students and watching their eyes get wide as they realize there’s another way to look at movies other than passively.
But ultimately I use it to exemplify a film that is plot-focused, and a caper (also known as a heist) film is a great way to do that, because they’re all about what happens next, and all of the characters are more or less just meant to have specialized skills and look cool.
So I’m going to take a couple of posts to discuss how Ocean’s Eleven fits the Caper tropes as laid out by TVtropes.com.
Told from the criminal viewpoint, a group plans and executes an elaborate robbery. (TVtropes.com-The Caper)
Normally a film with thieves and liars in it puts them in the “villain” category, but from the very beginning, the audience of Ocean’s Eleven is rooting for Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his crew. Ocean is immediately cool and charismatic in the opening scene, where the viewer inhabits the point-of-view of his parole board, and yet the last thing we want is for Ocean to stay on the straight and narrow when he is set free from prison. The parole board leader asks her final question of the scene: “Mr. Ocean, what do you think you would do if released?” The little crinkle in Clooney’s eyes tells us all we need to know–he has a job planned. Namely, rob three casinos in Vegas that have a shared vault. These three casinos have security systems upon security systems, and robbing even a single casino has never been done before. Ocean is going to need a large and heavily skilled crew to pull this con, and even then they’re all likely to end up in jail or dead at the hand of the casinos’ owner, Terry Benedict.
The criminals are usually more rounded than the opposition, or at least more colorful.
Benedict (Andy Garcia), as the antagonist of Ocean’s Eleven, is a drab, passionless man. He is pictured here looking at art. He is an efficient, ruthless business man. He is firmly in control of what happens in his casino. But, man alive, is he dull. When Tess (Julia Roberts) asks him what he thinks of the new Picasso she has procured for his collection, he responds: “I like it because you like it.” Dude, get a personality. He never does. We want Tess to drop him like an over-microwaved Hot Pocket.
On the other hand, though none of the characters are exactly round, each of the Ocean crew have a quirky trait to set them apart. Some are ruthlessly funny, like Frank and the twins. Others have funny accents like Yen and Basher. They all have some distinguishing eccentricity (Rusty is eating in every scene).
In the case of Ocean’s Eleven, we have the Avengers Assemble trope. It plays as a montage kicked off by the “money” of the crew, Reuben, saying: “You’re going to need a crew as crazy as you are!…Who you got in mind?” Then we go member by member, giving us a short intro to the character’s quirk and skills and seeing them pulled onto the job. This ends with the whole team together at an “informational” meeting where Linus (Matt Damon), the only one on the fence, must decide to commit before getting the low-down on the plan. Then, of course, we get a second montage telling us the plan.
Ocean’s Eleven is a cool, effective comedy. The laughs range from witty banter between Danny and Rusty or Danny and Tess to slapstick between the twins. And we do end with poetic justice. Although Benedict is a seemingly up-and-up businessman, Danny wins back Tess by proving to her that Benedict is just as much of a thief as he is and more of a liar. Through the con, Tess gets proof that she is not as important to Benedict as his money–he does not truly love her. And even though he chooses his money over Tess when given the option of one or the other, he is left with nothing but millions of flyers for prostitutes and a whole-lotta egg on his face. #sadnotsad
In part II, I’ll discuss the roles of the caper and how the characters line up.