A confession: I liked Ocean’s Twelve. In fact, I liked it a lot. If you can divorce it in your mind from the almost too brilliant Ocean’s Eleven, it stands alone as a pretty decent heist flick, even if the frayed plot strands never quite tied together in the end. I still don’t understand the almost universal disdain for the middle child of the trilogy, other than to chalk it up to the inevitable backlash that success elicits or a general disdain for a group of actors who never appeared to be earning their paychecks. Perhaps, the casual back-and-forth was a little too casual, or the constant metafictional tongue-in-cheek humor of Twelve began to ulcerate the linings of some mouths. I dunno. For me, it was a beautifully shot film that took great advantage of its European settings, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a flick as stylishly laid back and as effortlessly clever as Twelve.
Still, despite the relative box-office success of Twelve ($360 million worldwide), its reception by both audiences and critics was mostly lukewarm (hardening into outright contempt with time), which is part of the reason (other than the obvious financial one) that Soderbergh and Clooney decided to make a third installment — to win back audiences who were put off by the second film and give themselves a chance to end the trilogy on a high note. And, to a degree they succeeded, at least with audiences who need the blunt satisfaction of an overblown heists with a huge payoff in the end — “The A-Team” and George Peppard has spoiled the many of you who can’t abide by anything less than a plan coming together. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of the brilliant interplay and in-jokes between the cast members that dominated Twelve — the easygoing camaraderie has been sacrificed to some extent in favor of gadgets, disguises, and props that any chump could’ve manipulated — why bother putting three of Hollywood’s leading men in a film if all they are going to do is wear masks, push buttons, and fret over blueprints? Soderbergh overshoots his mark and again fails to strike an appropriate balance between the enjoyable self-indulgent improvisational riffing and the flick’s broader heist appeal.
Which isn’t to suggest it’s not worthwhile escapist diversion — it’s slick, mostly entertaining, and — again — beautifully shot, though it’s a mystery to me why Soderbergh would want to waste his immense cinematography talents on something as tacky and gaudy as freakin’ Vegas; that goddamn city is a blight on the eye of society, and for a guy who can make Detroit look gorgeous, it’s a shame to see it all go to waste filming slot machines, tawdry hotel rooms, and Vegas exteriors chintzy enough to tickle your gag reflex. But Vegas and sensory overload is what the people want, and that’s what they get — Soderbergh’s super-saturated frames are damn near blinding to those of us who think that Vegas’ already opulent garishness blends together like a sidewalk caricature artist attempting to reproduce the works of Rothko. But man alive — the ’70s-inspired pan shots and the wide angles that gradually close in on an actor’s face are stunning — you rarely see a director experiment with camerawork in a mainstream film as much as Soderbergh does.
The script, by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders), is sleek and flimsy — in a game of rock, paper, Ocean’s plots, the paper is always going to win out — but there’s just enough meat upon which to hang the film’s running caper. Willie Banks (Al Pacino) is ruthless bastard who breaks the Sinatra handshake code and hornswaggles Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) out of his share of a casino project, which provokes a myocardial infarction, leaving Reuben half-dead and catatonic — reason enough for Danny (Clooney) to get the gang back together to pull off a revenge job. The con? To ensure that Banks’ casino sinks on opening night, which entails all sorts of feats — large and small — most of which, of course, “can’t be done.”
The heist unspools leisurely — there is only one to fill up the entire 100-minute run-time — and a great deal of the movie revolves around troubleshooting the many chinks in the plan, which eventually requires that they enroll Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) to help them finance it. The supporting cast, but for Julia Roberts, are all back, blithely playing their bit parts to their usual perfection, though I found it strange that the one person unable to rise above the material was Pacino, whose ham-fisted hoo-hahness has all but swallowed him alive — he’s the one drag on the whole production, an old-fashioned yeller in the midst of so much genial coolness.
The subplots are minimal, though the best involves Virgil (Casey Affleck) working in a dice factory in Mexico and, by appealing to the namesake of a tequila brand, inciting a worker revolt in an effort to increase wages by $3 a week (or a five percent raise). One of the more ludicrous plot strands involves Linus’ (Matt Damon) effort to seduce Banks’ assistant (Ellen Barkin), which unfolds like a bad Looney Tunes short — I almost expected Barkin’s cheeks to explode and have her exclaim, “Wow, what a man!” But then again, Damon has always seemed an anomaly in the Ocean’s films — only in the presence of Brad Pitt and George Clooney could Jason (freakin’) Bourne successfully pull of the role of the dweeb.
Like the other two films, Thirteen is largely a platform for the two masterminds, Ocean and Rusty (Pitt), to exchange their witty banter. The two have become increasingly interchangeable as the go-to-guy for cool one-liners — they are kind of the same character now, only wearing different suits. The self-referential humor is, for the most part, sadly absent but for an exchange in the closing scene — a wink and a nod to those of us who like self-deprecation, mild though it is. And unlike with the first two films, there’s not nearly as much misdirection — the audience is kept in the know for most of the movie, though I admit to a certain pleasure, once all the kinks have been ironed out, in watching them flawlessly execute their elaborately intricate scheme — it’s a helluva climax, it’s just too bad the foreplay wasn’t a bit more titillating. But then again, for most audiences whose lasting impression is that of the cinematic O-face, you’ll probably leave content and sleepy.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.Ocean Breathes Salty
Film Reviews | June 8, 2007 | Comments ()