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Published: Friday, 12/10/2004

Movie review: Ocean's Twelve *****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Good news:

Relief has arrived.

Relief from politics. Relief from seasonal obligations. Relief from your obsession with Paris Hilton, holiday shopping, work, the kids, the marriage, the laundry. There was a time when movies were relief, and made with style but without self-consciousness; Hollywood, indeed, was constructed on these ideals. So is Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's pictures. If you thought Ocean's Eleven was a glossy, charm machine about nothing, and you liked it that way - better news:

Ocean's Twelve, like the best disposable movies, is about less than nothing. Which frees it up, of course, to be completely vital.

That is, if your idea of vital art does not necessarily include awards, a deep earnestness, or the weight of the world. In other words, if your only notion of a worthy film is a film that allows you to multitask - "Oh, I didn't realize Alexander the Great hung out with Aristotle," and so on - Ocean's Twelve will disappoint. Even more than the first film, it is remarkable in its avoidance of all responsibility but one to shamelessly entertain, managing to be smart, breezy, well-made, experimental, funny, and without an ounce of pretense.

That doesn't mean it's a better picture than Ocean's Eleven, and I don't mean to overstate all this, but we don't tend to trust movies that slight anymore. And with good reason, because they tend to be lazy. Ocean's Twelve, which seems as if it were shot quickly over a long weekend, only looks lazy. I cannot recall a single film in recent years, let alone a series, that operated on this idea: that there are many kinds of good movies, and that a movie without a rigorous bone in its body can be as important to us as a movie with a heavy purpose. The only thing that good movies ever share in common is a director with the courage of his convictions.

But why Soderbergh?

The original Ocean's Eleven, the Lewis Milestone heist movie from 1960, was not much of anything, an indifferently made piffle, a paycheck - public relations for Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin who were hanging out back at the Sands between takes and throwing down highballs.

Why Soderbergh ever thought that he could fatten so thin an idea, how he came to believe there was more to that Rat Pack flick - I'm certain he has his carefully thought through explanations, but I have my own:

I bet Soderbergh, who made Traffic and Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight, realized he had a movie, maybe two, after closely listening to the way movie stars talk to other movie stars, especially when they like each other. That's the fuel for Ocean's Twelve: the illusion we're hanging with the world's biggest film stars, their guard is down, and we're being sneaked into a ring-a-ding-ding great time of an after-hours party. They finish each other's thoughts. They're so comfortable they'll start to say something then let their voices trail off - because we get the gist.

"For this job," Danny Ocean (George Clooney) says, "we'll need a hell in a hand basket."

And Rusty (Brad Pitt) replies:

"I can't train a cat that fast."

I don't know what they mean, either. It's never explained. But it's funny and random and offhand - a non sequitur in a film full of non sequiturs. Another time, Pitt says to Matt Damon, who plays the naive pickpocket Linus: "It's not in my nature to be mysterious. But I can't talk about it, and I can't talk about why."

Consider that advice:

Don't worry if you're lost in Ocean's Twelve. Don't worry

if you can't keep up with the Ocean gang's scheme to swipe valuables in Rome, Amsterdam, Paris, and Lake Como, Italy.

My press notes here say newcomer George Nolfi is credited with the screenplay, but I wouldn't want to be him, and I'm completely shocked there was a screenplay in the first place. Nolfi couldn't have written a lot of these lines, which obviously come from the easy, casual rapport shared among Clooney and Pitt and Damon and Bernie Mac. And Elliot Gould. And Carl Reiner. And Julia Roberts. And Don Cheadle.

Pitt, in particular, is great with this nonsense. It's as if when he's not sliding on a toga he's studying Marx Bros. movies and learning how to strip a one-liner of its self-conscious zing. A lot of the dialogue in Ocean's Twelve revolves around arranging the heists, plotting their moves, but it's all a sly parody of the way criminals speak in heist movies.

Listen closely to a scene where Pitt and Clooney hit up an informant (Robbie Coltrane) by tossing out gibberish code. Damon, who looks as dumbfounded as Clooney looks suave, is expected to keep up. He recites lyrics to "Kashmir" from Led Zeppelin.

Ocean's Twelve is not your typical follow-up; it is never more of the same, but rather it recognizes how typically sweaty most sequels behave, of how much bigger they are expected to be:

If everything went right for the Ocean gang in the first film, nothing goes right this time. Oh sure, there's a plot: Danny and Tess (Julia Roberts) have been tracked to their new Connecticut colonial by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), the Las Vegas casino boss they stole $160 million from the first time around. He wears ascots now. He carries a golf putter. He wants his money back, with interest, which is bad news because the gang members are still spending a chunk of his change. (Casey Affleck promises Scott Caan he'll give him $1 million if he'll shut up for a month.)

Oh, and there are two subplots. The first involves a rival criminal, legendary European thief the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel), who challenges the gang to steal a Faberge egg before he does. The second is flabbier: Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a Europol agent, and the daughter of another legendary thief, who happened to have an affair with Rusty years ago and knows every criminal trick in the book and finds herself sniffing close at their heels.

If I have a gripe here, it's with all that: There's too much exposition at the expense of more nonsense, more banter (and more Bernie Mac, who gets lost in the shuffle). But there's a lot of banter. Actually, there's so much, we don't see many of the heists, only what goes wrong.

That's the loosey-goosey theme here: Soderbergh had such a big hit with the first film, it freed him to shoot a holiday heist picture that's as spontaneous and vague as any ultra-hip movie from the 1960s, and it's all iconic, about image and the feeling that a fun picture gives you.

I have a book here on my desk Soderbergh did with his idol, the English filmmaker Richard Lester, and it's all just become clear: Ocean's Twelve is not a sequel to a remake, but a remake itself - of A Hard Day's Night.

Just add a fab eight.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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