|(Photo credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)|
There was no big holiday-season film I was looking forward to more than Ocean’s Twelve. Its 2001 predecessor, Ocean’s Eleven, was a shrewd little pleasure machine, a glossy heist film headed up by the most charming leading man of the moment, George Clooney, and full of twists and laughs. Director Steven Soderbergh has regathered the gang, including Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Don Cheadle, and given them a script (credited to George Nolfi) that is, if anything, even more twisty and laughy. It’s also hyperaware—of itself as a sequel, of the way we know things about its stars beyond the characters they play, of the deep knowledge audiences now bring to movie conventions—and uses all of these elements as parts of the plot. For a filmmaker like Soderbergh, who tends to alternate his canny commercial projects with assiduously off-kilter ones (Solaris, Full Frontal), the success of Ocean’s Eleven freed him to make Ocean’s Twelve, a combination of the commercial and the off-kilter.
The initial gambit here is that the criminal crew headed by Clooney’s Danny Ocean has been tracked down by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia, fey in a series of absurd ascots), the corrupt Vegas casino boss they stole millions from the first time around. Benedict demands repayment, with interest, which is inconvenient for many of the gang. Clooney’s Ocean has settled into a big suburban-Connecticut home with wife Tess (Julia Roberts, who really looks like she knows what she’s talking about in her opening scenes, snippily telling the housepainter that the red he’s mixing is “too oxblood”). Brad Pitt’s Rusty is running a hotel, miserable with its petty responsibilities. (Topher Grace reprises his Eleven role playing a jaded version of himself, and nearly steals the picture with an early scene in which he’s bummed and numbed and has trashed his hotel room—in Pitt’s blithe estimation, Grace “went all Frankie Muniz on me.”) Don Cheadle’s Basher is in a recording studio, producing an album—the movie gets its PG-13 rating with the funny stunt of having a phone ring every time Cheadle says “fuck,” drowning out the obscenity. Bernie Mac’s Frank whiles away his days getting mani- and pedicures, a small joke about Mac’s real-life fondness for the same.
It’s fun to watch the way Clooney gathers these guys, including Matt Damon’s halting Linus, taking them to Rome to map out a few heists that’ll get Benedict off their backs. (Clooney’s so cool, and has such rapport with his well-groomed wild-bunch, that he frequently doesn’t even finish his sentences; his voice just trails off, because he knows his posse—and we—get the gist.) There’s also a sizable subplot: The Night Fox (Vincent Cassel), Europe’s greatest thief, challenges Clooney to steal a Fabergé egg from a Paris museum before he does, and Catherine Zeta-Jones shimmers in as a brilliant Interpol agent—let us pause here to register appropriate inability to suspend our disbelief that far—who’s hot on everyone’s trail, especially Pitt’s (their characters once had an affair).
If you think this sounds top-heavy, you’ve hit on the central disappointment of Ocean’s Twelve: There’s so much exposition to plow through, it has precious little action. I honestly can’t remember a scene in which Clooney actually does something besides banter. (Mind you, it’s terrific banter. He gets the most out of a running joke about being hurt that people think he’s 50. At least.) The sequel is really a collection of breezy, clever gags—when Damon says to Roberts, “You’re going to have to play a small role in this thing,” it sets up a meta-payoff you’ll find either cute or cloying—which Soderbergh gussies up with jump-cuts, black-and-white footage bleeding into color, and a shot of a plane landing with the camera tilted 180 degrees, as though the director were lying on his side. A lot of this rigorous razzle-dazzle reminded me of of the work of a Soderbergh idol, Richard Lester, and if Eleven was Soderbergh’s A Hard Day’s Night, with Clooney and company as a jumbo-size version of the Beatles, then Twelve is Help!, a more garish, less spontaneous-feeling follow-up.
Add a cutesy Bruce Willis cameo, the great Cherry Jones as . . . oh, I’m not going to spoil it, plus Robbie Coltrane and Eddie Izzard in tiny parts that were clearly larger at some stage of the production, and you’ve got one bountiful farrago of a film. Me, I’d have edited Zeta-Jones’s part down—in trying to be as poker-faced as the rest, she just looks stunned. But then, if she wasn’t around, Izzard wouldn’t be able to toss off a good line about her sounding, with her Miss Moneypenny coo, very “early James Bond.” Come to think of it, that’s what Soderbergh and Clooney should do next: The hell with Rat Pack nostalgia—revitalize the Bond franchise!