In 2001, I wrote: “At the very end, Ocean’s Eleven nearly transcends its purely pleasurable qualities in a stunning and strangely emotionally resonant sequence set to Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’ that is unfortunately undercut by a largely unnecessary tag scene.” Well, that tag scene was necessary in one sense: It set us up for a sequel. So now that scene has to answer for both marring the first film and for spawning this lesser second one.
Where the first film flirted with genuine artistry, Ocean’s Twelve has trouble maintaining adequacy. The movie’s an OK 90 minutes of fun — too bad it’s 125 minutes long. That’s perhaps a little unkind, since the film is fitfully amusing, but when you consider the talent amassed here, you have a right to expect something that doesn’t underwhelm you.
Director Steven Soderbergh called Ted Griffith’s script for Ocean’s Eleven “as close to a perfect piece of entertainment as I’d ever read.” If he’s said anything even remotely like that about George Nolfi’s (Timeline) screenplay for Ocean’s Twelve, then he’s very easily pleased.
I don’t especially mind that the movie’s setup doesn’t make much sense. Would a group of really savvy thieves just cave in and agree to pay back everything they stole — plus usurious interest — simply because their victim, Terry Benedict (an utterly wasted Andy Garcia), shows up with a pair of goons, pokes at them with a golf putter and makes threatening noises? Surely they’d have something better up their sleeves, but not here.
I would have been willing to let that pass. But when they start trying to earn some new money by stealing the world’s first stock certificate — worth about two million Euro — in a scheme so elaborate that they’re unlikely to end up with bus fare after expenses, my suspension of disbelief unraveled at a rapid pace.
OK, I can accept that all this has been instigated by a jealous “master thief,” the “Night Fox” (Vincent Cassel, Birthday Girl). Said thief wants to prove to his mentor (a special surprise guest star, who isn’t much of a surprise because his voice gives him away long before he’s shown) that he’s a better thief than Danny Ocean (George Clooney). And making a Faberge egg the target of a heist is reasonable enough. But the film constantly and consistently mistakes convoluted plot turns for cleverness, to the degree that by the end, I wasn’t quite sure who had or hadn’t stolen what and when they did so. Worse yet, I decided I didn’t much care, and I don’t think Nolfi or Soderbergh did either.
What they were concerned with was coming up with enough bits for everyone in their A-list cast. The original film was cast to the script, while this one is scripted to the cast. That’s not the most effective approach to structuring a story, and sometimes it doesn’t serve the case well. Carl Reiner and Don Cheadle take the worst hits from this approach, but there’s also way too much off-screen time for Clooney, and not nearly enough material for him and Brad Pitt in tandem. Clooney, in fact, disappears for so long in the latter parts that it’s possible to forget he’s even in the film. The disappointment in this regard is aggravated by how very good the MIA stars are when they are actually on-screen.
Some of the scenes do live up to the original. There’s a terrific bit in which Clooney, Pitt and Matt Damon talk business with “Dutch” gangster Matsui (Robbie Coltrane, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Everyone speaks in torturous nonsense, except for Damon, who doesn’t “get it” and finally responds with some choice words from the work of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. The upshot of the scene doesn’t make any sense, but it’s amusing all the same, and Damon is the one actor who gets the better end of the deal with the new script.
Julia Roberts disappears early on, but is rewarded with a large role near the end. It’s too bad that most of her material occurs when Clooney is out of the picture, and making her a part of the gang completely destroys the character arc of her part in the original film. Plus, her sequence is so bizarre that it’s more surreal and clever than actually funny. It’s like one of those old in-jokes where a character is described as looking like the movie star who’s playing the role (Ralph Bellamy in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, for example). Here the joke drags on way beyond its merely chuckle-worthy value.
The magical touch Soderbergh brought to the original — where he turned Las Vegas into a shimmering wonderland — is replaced here by the director in his more “artistic” mode. One result is that the movie often has a grainy look from shooting in natural light (Soderbergh shot the film under his Peter Andrews alias). And the film’s style reminded me more of Jonathan Demme’s unfairly dismissed homage to the French New Wave in The Truth About Charlie than it reminded me of Ocean’s Eleven. The only difference is that Demme did it much better. Instead of anything as blissful as the fountain sequence at the end of the first film, in Twelve we’re given a series of motion sickness-inducing zoom shots on nearly every member of the cast as they emerge from jail. I’m one of the few critics who actually champion the use of the zoom lens, but this just looked like an annoying imitation of Richard Lester’s work.
And then there’s an utterly unnecessary, underlit scene with the entire cast gathering for a poker game that looks like an outtake from Soderbergh’s maddening Full Frontal. The scene has nothing to with the story, takes place after things are resolved, and turns the stars into something like the party-guests-who-won’t-go-home.
Soderbergh is often regarded as a filmmaker who alternates his more “serious” projects with his merely “entertaining” ones. This time, he seems to have gotten his wires crossed and hasn’t quite made either one. Perhaps this is his attempt to fuse the two different approaches, but if so, it’s not a successful one.
Oh, the movie will do all right at the box office, and quite a few critics (including Roger Ebert, who mistakenly lists the writers of the original 1960 Ocean’s Eleven as co-scenarists here) are giving it a free pass as “good fun.” And when Ocean’s Twelve is at its best, that’s a fair assessment — but all too often it’s not at its best. Rated PG-13 for language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke