With his ambitious but unnecessary remake of Ocean's Eleven, director Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, Traffic) takes a peculiar detour through star-studded mediocrity. Scripted by Ted Griffin, the project is not an unpleasant diversion, but neither is it much of a thrill, summoning at best a good-natured shrug.
The movie's hero is Danny Ocean, played in Lewis Milestone's 1960 film by a smarmy, charming Frank Sinatra. The Chairman of the Board is succeeded here by an adequately charismatic George Clooney. Newly paroled, the determined Ocean decides he must return immediately to the life he knows best -- stealing stuff. So he sets about combing America to assemble a posse of ten criminal specialists. Among them are his right-hand man, the slumming Hollywood cardsharp Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) and the nimble Windy City pickpocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon).
A series of very tidy coincidences allows Ocean the opportunity to redeem his entire life, provided that he properly executes this one big score. It turns out that his ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), has run off to play art curator for nasty megalomaniac Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), whose iron fist controls three of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas -- the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand. It also happens that Benedict has angered aging high-roller Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), who'd be happy to bankroll a mission against him to avenge himself for being shoved out of his own Vegas hotel business. Unlike the original Ocean's 11, in which the masterminds' tools included phosphorescent paint, errant garbage cans and friends' coffins, this operation does not want for the best available resources.
Joining Ocean for the job is a colorful cast of characters, most of whom seem to believe that exaggerated performances will cover their glaring lack of collective chemistry. There are fun moments to be had with the retired confidence man Saul Bloom (a very enjoyable Carl Reiner) and card-dealing "plant" Frank Catton (Bernie Mac, knowingly reversing the original film's stupid racist jokes), but the group's munitions expert is played by Soderbergh-regular Don Cheadle with an outrageously ill-advised Cockney accent.
Once everyone is gathered at Tishkoff's, Ocean unveils his plan, spreading out before them documents apparently downloaded from www.blueprints4robbingcasinos.com. As we see in a series of sarcastic, period-specific flashbacks, casino robberies always end in dismal failure. Even if the crew manages to dupe security, screw around with high-tech electronic doohickeys, descend into Benedict's central vault and neutralize the guards, it'll be impossible to escape with the loot. Ocean, of course, remains undaunted.
Gone is the original's New Year's Eve scheme (and its amusing Godzilla-esque miniatures of electrical towers toppling). Instead, the crew infiltrates during a boxing match. In Milestone's film -- an interesting time capsule but by no means a terrific movie -- we got Peter Lawford working out his mother issues and Sammy and Dean lip-synching their hearts out, occasionally a few frames off. Here, there's the odd groovy scene -- Pitt teaching Damon how to lie convincingly, Cheadle vainly shielding his scrotum from an enormous electromagnetic pulse -- but the characters simply aren't fleshed out enough to maintain interest through all the burglary rigmarole.
A suspense-free caper, Oceans Eleven commits the crime of being intensely average. Which is a shame, because what could have been sensational turns out to be merely this week's heist movie.