Ocean's Twelve
Director: Steven Soderbergh. Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Julia Roberts, Vincent Cassel, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia, Elliott Gould, Eddie Jemison, Bernie Mac, Shaobo Qin, Carl Reiner, Bruce Willis, Cherry Jones, Albert Finney, Eddie Izzard, Robbie Coltrane, Jeroen Krabbé, Jared Harris, Topher Grace. Screenplay: George Nolfi (loosely adapting characters created by George Clayton Johnson and Jack Golden Russell).

Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven was not just an above-average caper comedy. The film did more, even, than simply refashion a stultifyingly dull original film into a fleet-footed and creamily choreographed fantasy, though that in itself was an impressive feat. What's best and wittiest about Soderbergh's film is how deftly its form amplified not just the content of the picture, which is all about elegant con jobs, but the position of Soderbergh himself as a newly anointed artiste rolling with Hollywood's biggest players. Soderbergh's copping of the Best Director Oscar for Traffic completed one of the liveliest self-renewals Hollywood had seen in some years, though the royal flush of mainstream success sat rather uneasily alongside the anarchic weirdness of Schizopolis and the minimalism of Gray's Anatomy. Repeatedly in interviews, Soderbergh strove to pitch his sudden embrace by the industry as perfectly consistent with the rebellious postures of his "exile" films. He's an insider who still wants to be seen as an outsider, a status also coveted by several of the cast members of Ocean's Eleven, multimillionaires like George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts who have enjoyed the luxury—available to few actors and enacted by even fewer—of rejecting a purely profit-driven career. Clooney and Roberts only really embraced this film-as-art philosophy after collaborating with Soderbergh in Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich, while Damon and Pitt have at least sought out the Minghellas, Van Sants, Gilliams, and Finchers of the world whenever possible, even while fulfilling their dutiful obligations as matinée idols.

Ocean's Eleven single-handedly made an exquisite case for the paradoxical figure of the eight-figure independent spirit. Denouncing the flat-footed clannishness of the original Rat Pack vanity project, which hardly exists beyond a frat-party excuse for Sinatra & Co. to remind us of their friendship, Soderbergh's Ocean's persuasively offered its lusciously dressed and photographed superstars as gadflies of the corporate system, privileging chutzpah over safety, Robin Hooding vast sums of wealth instead of just reaping it for themselves. The serpentine twists of the plot, abetted by the casual romanticism of the visuals and a genial willingness to give equal time to less brand-named costars, all made Ocean's Eleven a deliriously enjoyable kiss-off to the same deep-pocketed moguls who financed it. Soderbergh and his frisky, fresh-faced ensemble managed to bite the hands that feed them all, and audiences were so heartily entertained by the twists, turns, silk shirts, and one-liners ("They might as well call it whitejack!") that we cheerily ignored the bald-faced hypocrisy of the whole venture. Ocean's Eleven is almost certainly Soderbergh's best film, revealing the director to be an able connoisseur of mainstream forms, an artist-for-hire who milks highly saleable product for as much pleasure as possible, without ever countenancing any truly subversive or experimental impulses. Which, after all, not everyone needs to do.

I'm sad to report, then, that Ocean's Twelve turns out to be the cynical enterprise that everybody assumed Ocean's Eleven was going to be, but wasn't. Much closer in spirit to the Milestone dud than to his own winning forerunner, Ocean's Twelve is astonishingly brazen at resting on its own insider status, dithering around with a plot that is not only less coherent than the first film's but revealed by the end to be almost completely gratuitous (since all of the important action, we finally learn, has been happening imperceptibly offscreen). The troubling signals begin early. Soderbergh's own photography, executed under the nom de camera "Peter Andrews," is less willing to the cast or the locations, many of which look surprisingly haggard given the dreamboat faces and places we are touring from the outset. (Yikes, Julia! Ouch, George!) The selection of Catherine Zeta-Jones to join the ensemble is exposed as a dud from almost her first moments. She isn't a flexible enough actress to give a really fun line reading, much less participate in the prankish spirit on which the franchise depends. The only times she's really managed to let loose on screen, in High Fidelity and Chicago, the secret was that we didn't especially like either character, and Zeta-Jones lasso'd her own hussyish hauteur to good comic effect. Not so in Ocean's Twelve, whose impulse to dote on her bone-dry character is rather inexplicable. There's nothing really wrong with the performance or the role except that they seem like anxious attempts to broaden the scope of the movie, and perhaps its box-office take, though no one has convinced me that Zeta-Jones sells tickets on her own.

The news among the returning regulars is just as discomfiting. I'll try to keep the plot revelations to a minimum, but I think you'll be surprised how many of the familiar faces spend most of the movie stuck in jail and sequestered from view. After reintroducing us to all of the main crew, in assembled vignettes that aren't nearly as bouncy as the first film's opening montage, Ocean's Twelve immediately starts the business of sidelining this impressive cast, and for what? New characters that have comparatively little entertainment value? European character actors with astonishingly little to do? Catherine Zeta-Jones trying to get a signature for a warrant? Wouldn't you give all of this if it meant Bernie Mac got more than ten minutes of screen time?

The tempting explanation for why Soderbergh's handling of the ensemble seems so unbalanced is that he and screenwriter George Nolfi are working around the thick schedules of the stars. There's an unsettling sense throughout that the characters inserted into each given scene are the ones who showed up to the set that day. The tenuous connections between these scenes, the sudden deus ex machinas, and the disappointingly arbitrary reversals of fortune, though still reasonably diverting for a holiday commercial release, only heighten our sense of Ocean's Twelve as a vanity project among friends, rather than a labor of love. Once some of the actors start appearing out of character as themselves, and other latter-day Soderbergh veterans start popping up in gratuitous cameos, the movie's almost hermetic status as an in-joke for its creators is essentially confirmed. I literally can't tell you whether the last sequence in the movie is supposed to be part of the storyline or if it's footage from the wrap party; in either case, I can only report that we aren't really invited.

Why doesn't Soderbergh seem to want to entertain us? Are he and Clooney just miffed at us for not buying enough tickets to Solaris and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind? Has their recent crescendo of success, excluding and overriding those particular flops, already dulled the artistic edge that they were still assiduously cultivating in Out of Sight and Ocean's Eleven, albeit with a remarkable air of relaxation? Maybe Soderbergh and crew really do think this new film is as much of a gas as the first film, and maybe some of its viewers will, too. There is some clever stuff in it: Topher Grace has another witty cameo (though the angle of celebrity self-absorption still motivates its inclusion), and Matt Damon gets some good laughs making Linus as foggy as possible. David Holmes' music is still perky and animated, even when he's forced to shoulder some overdrawn sequences, like a breakdancing tour through a laser-protected museum hall. I didn't have a bad time at Ocean's Twelve, but I was suffused with disappointment the whole time. The movie doesn't position us as eager, slightly bewildered participants in the heist; we are sideline observers at best, and when the plot mechanics are finally explained to us, I was surprised by how uninterested I was in hearing them. I am not so much shocked that lightning didn't strike twice for this sequel as I am surprised at just how average the whole movie seems; it isn't even an interesting failure or an all-out disaster. It's resoundingly mediocre. I guess Twelve is actually the new 13: an unlucky number. Grade: C

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