Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The A-Listers

By Lars Trodson

So here we are, contemplating the fact that the most popular movie George Clooney and his pals may ever make in their careers is a remake of some eye candy from 1960.

The original “Ocean’s 11” has always left me with the impression of a newly enameled appliance: a pink washing machine or a cherry colored washer-dryer. There is nothing terribly important about it, but you’re kind of happy that it is around. That’s because the parts -- the Frank Sinatras, the Dean Martins, the Sammy Davises -- work smoothly and get the job done.

Watching the original film actually is almost the same as doing your laundry: It smells nice, it’s easy, and when it’s over you can’t quite remember when you actually undertook the task.

In the 1960 film, the sets are gaudy, the dialogue impossible (I get the feeling none of the leading actors actually rehearsed the script), and the women are imposingly attractive. It was the appeal of the boys, the Rat Pack, that carried the day. All of them together turned “Ocean’s 11” into a hit and into the cultural touchstone it is today.

Now that Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle -- not to mention a small army of other actors -- have turned the “Ocean’s 11” movie into a modern franchise, it’s important to remember one thing.

For Sinatra, Martin, Davis and the others, “Ocean’s 11” was a bauble, a thing to ad-lib during concerts, record dates, nightclub appearances, TV shows and radio gigs. For the guys appearing in the “Ocean” movies today: it is, sadly, their main gig.

At the time Sinatra made “Ocean’s 11” he was universally recognized as the guiding force behind some of the most significant and ground-breaking popular musical recordings of the day. Sinatra’s influence was not posthumous; by the time Gay Talese wrote his article for ‘Esquire’ -- which was titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” -- it was universally accepted that Sinatra had changed the tenor and import of popular music. This was six years after “Ocean’s 11.”

For Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, the same was also true: “Ocean’s 11” was a great vehicle to call attention to their day jobs, which was making records and performing in nightclubs. Dean Martin was a performer, and then a movie star.

When Matt Damon isn’t making an “Ocean” movie he’s…what? Making a “Bourne” movie?

Why is this so? Why do the remake in the first place? If Clooney, Pitt, Damon and Don Cheadle -- as well as Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner, etc. -- got together and said “let’s make a heist film and set it in Las Vegas”, all anyone would say is that they are following a grand movie tradition. Even if they were accused of ripping off “Ocean’s Eleven”, so what? At least, and this is most important, they would have created their own characters.

I thought the same thing as I watched, painfully, part of the remake of “The Pink Panther” with Steve Martin. Here we have, in our own generation, a truly gifted comedian and actor. Why couldn’t the creative minds active today create a character as unique to Martin as Clouseau was to Peter Sellers? Why does Martin only get the retread, when a generation ago Blake Edwards and the studio system allowed the writers to come up with a new movie character?

Cut back a few years and ask yourself the same thing about Samuel L. Jackson and his spin on “Shaft.” Jackson is one of the most charismatic movie stars working today and yet Richard Roundtree obviously worked in an era where he gets the original, and groundbreaking film, and our guy, our generation, gets the pallid remake.

Given that it wasn’t even technically a remake, why couldn’t the filmmakers and studio have enough confidence to say: Rather than remake “Shaft”, let’s create an entirely new private eye for Jackson and make a franchise out of that? But no. No confidence. No creativity. Only remakes and retreads and washouts.

I didn’t dislike either new “Ocean’s 11” films, but I won’t see the third, at least not in the theaters. These films are sleek and fashionable, but they don’t have the American sturdiness of the original. The Sinatra version may have been like doing your laundry, but the Clooney versions are like watching a DVD of you doing your laundry. It’s an echo -- and that really shouldn’t be good enough for any of us.