Oceans 12 (USA, 2004, Steven Soderbergh) AKA It Takes One to Know One
All right, so it’s three years later, and the crooks who made away with a casino’s worth of dough in the original have been tracked down, one by one, by the casino owner Terry Benedict (Garcia), who demands the money back (with interest) or dire consequences will rain down upon the perpetrators. Most have spent the majority of the loot, which leaves them little alternative but to plan ANOTHER major heist in order to save their necks. This time the boys head over to Europe to find the perfect score. Indeed, much of Oceans 12 was filmed in Italy, which might help explain why I was often reminded of another glib and glossy entry into the genre, one also starring beautiful people gliding through glorious locations while exchanging bon mots and teasing us with its pent-up sexual tension, Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. This certainly flatters by comparison Steven Soderbergh’s sequel to his worldwide hit, Ocean’s 11; Ocean’s 12 is at times quite a bit of fun but in the end, ultimately frivolous and forgettable.
Now there is little doubt that Soderbergh is a skilled director, who can move effortlessly from indie (sex, lies and videotape) to mainstream Hollywood fare (Oceans 11) to arthouse (Solaris) with relative ease and to critical praise and commercial success. And he has managed here to make an appealing movie out of a wafery-thin story that could have been, and perhaps was, given the general level of intoxication suggested by the goofy humour, written it on the back of a cocktail napkin. This is his attempt at a post modern heist flick that doesn’t just turn the conventions of the genre on its ear-these, but pretty much ignores them entirely. Not only is the heist cobbled together in a bit of a haphazard fashion, but the lads have suddenly gone from master criminals to stumble-bums. Soderbergh blithely abandons the intricate planning and detailed plotting of the original in favour of a series of hit-and-miss in-jokes.
Ocean’s 12 is a film best appreciated by the avid lover of Hollywood movie product and pop culture junkie, in that much of the fun is derived from prior familiarity with the movies made by the film’s principle actors, and sly references to their oh-so-public private lives. Now don’t get me wrong, the film has some very funny moments, many of them at the expense of Matt Damon, who is not only very funny here (check out his earnest and wooden attempt to walk with the big boys in the streets of Italy), but also appears to be a very good sport about being the brunt of most of the film’s best jokes. When Soderbergh riffs on a theme he developed previously in the likewise intermittently entertaining Schizopolis, the codification of language, in a scene featuring golden boys Brad Pitt and George Clooney befuddling and humiliating new kid on the block Damon, it is funny not just because they are tormenting Damon, but also because the scene carries within it an implicit recognition of the power relationship between the three men in Hollywood circles, as Damon is attempting to break into the inner circle not only in this movie, but in the real world as well. The movie’s ironic sensibility makes for a fun game of spot the meta-movie making moments, and they can be fun to tally up, even if they do not always work particularly well (the whole Julia Roberts as Tess impersonating Julia Roberts thing in the art gallery was a self-referential wash out, I’m afraid.)
Unfortunately, when the fun is not trying to be wink-wink funny, and tries instead to tell a story, the movie loses all its momentum, not to mention its charm. The time spent developing this particular Italian Job is not well spent; unlike the original, where witnessing the details pile upon details like a fragile house of cards made for an engrossing narrative, in Ocean’s Eleven it merely leads to boredom. Also, as is a matter of unfortunate necessity given the nature of the beast that we called sequel, we’ve already been introduced to these characters and their personality and relationship quirks, which accounted for much of the charm of the original, and when combined with the fact that there’s not much of a story to tell here, Oceans 12 rises and falls upon the success of the in-jokery and Soderbergh’s stylish impressions of the beautiful people and glorious vistas. That he is able to make a borderline-engaging flick out of such a flimsy story is a sign of his skill, but does not alter the fact that what Soderbergh has produced is an insubstantial and only moderately entertaining genre-bending piece of Hollywood fluff.