Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
Ocean’s Twelve has a lot going for it. As the advertising has stressed, the entire Ocean’s Eleven cast is back (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Don Cheadle, Eddie Jemison, and Shaobo Qin), along with producer Jerry Weintraub and director/cinematographer Steven Soderbergh (doing his camerawork under the alias Peter Andrews, as he has on his last four films). It also brings back the propulsive ’70s-style rock/jazz of composer David Holmes, combined again with cleverly recycled movie music and blues and rock of the past. It also has some beautiful scenery, in Amsterdam, Rome, and Paris, and in the person of Catherine Zeta-Jones, who joins the cast along with Vincent Cassel.
Missing is Ted Griffin, the screenwriter of Ocean’s Eleven. (Who also recently lost his first directing job—on a sort-of sequel to The Graduate that he’d written, to be produced by Section 8, Soderbergh and Clooney’s production company—a week into shooting, to Rob Reiner. Sucks to be him.) The script here is by George Nolfi, whose only previous credit was as co-writer of Timeline, the time-travel adventure based on Michael Crichton’s novel. Nolfi adapted a script he’d originally written for John Woo, titled Honor Among Thieves, with liberal input from Soderbergh. The story reunites the gang to pull a string of heists in order to repay Terry Benedict (Garcia), who has been tipped off as to who robbed him and will have them killed if he doesn’t get his money back, with interest, in two weeks.
The film starts strong, catching us up with each member of the gang and letting us see what he’s done with his cut of the $160 million. There are some good character bits here, and the same sort of loose, smart patter that worked so well in the first film. Savor those moments, because the rest of the film doesn’t have enough of them. Once the gang is reunited and working to steal the money they need, the plot mechanics take over and we’re subjected to a dizzying series of flashbacks and too many scenes of Zeta-Jones’ Isabel Lahiri, a Europol detective who has history with several of the gang and a superhuman deductive ability.
Isabel is a phenomenon; she seems to work mostly on intuition, or simply near-omniscience. We’re told her father was a master thief, and her success is apparently equal parts good detective work and an innate ability to empathize with criminals. (We see her slickly palm a suspect’s cell phone and understand that she’s inherited her father’s prowess.) Zeta-Jones is appealingly smart and in command; even when she appears to figure out things she could never have guessed based only on the evidence before her, you’re willing to suspend disbelief, just as you are when Clooney or Pitt display fantastic abilities. She’s the right actress for the role—cold cunning wrapped in a hot package—the problem is that there’s simply too much of her; her subplot, Cassel’s subplot, and the several heist scenes conspire to keep us away from the Eleven who brought us back to the theater.
Nolfi has said, “My writing process was fairly quick because I had such an extensive outline when I began. There was more material in the outline than we could ultimately keep in the script.” And more yet that they should have cut. The script is flabby, with several scenes that go on too long or don’t accomplish enough or simply lie there, limp. Halfway through the film, I began to long for the clockwork precision of Griffin’s script for Eleven, in which every scene clicked into place neatly behind the one before; there wasn’t a moment I’d want to cut. Here there are entire sequences that could go, and several scenes that could be half as long. And what should be the film’s climax, the most important heist, is treated almost as an epilogue, and is so lacking in the exciting visuals that we’ve come to expect from Soderbergh that he just shakes the camera as though he were in the late stages of Parkinson’s.
The film simply has too much plot for this many characters to each come alive, and it hasn’t been sufficiently rewritten to service their abilities. Eleven had a clean, straight through-line (with a few necessary flashbacks) that didn’t prevent us from spending a revealing moment with each character. And they were each there to serve a specific purpose, so that their work neatly dovetailed with their personalities. No such care has been taken here. Jemison’s Livingston Dell, the computer expert, has almost nothing to do, as his skills are moot in each heist. And Cheadle’s Basher Tarr, the demolitions man, never gets to demolish anything.
Clooney has said, “The great thing about our cast is that there are no egos about who has better lines or more lines.” I wish there had been. Eleven depended on Clooney’s ultracool, old-Hollywood style for a big part of its charm, but here he’s sadly underused, and the brilliant byplay he had with Pitt is reduced to a few small scenes. The Malloy brothers (Affleck and Caan) also suffer, or rather we do, as their constant fraternal bickering is drowned out by the clatter of the plot machinery. Garcia’s Benedict is reduced to being simply The Heavy; the character has few scenes and no layers. His Japanese/Edwardian fop costumes are even more over the top (check the blood-red leather gloves!), making him seem almost like a Bond villain (the new costumes are by Milena Canonero; Jeffrey Kurland created Benedict’s look for Eleven).
All of this is not to say that the film doesn’t have ample pleasures. Soderbergh gets even more meta than in Eleven, giving us digs at Clooney’s vanity about aging, Cheadle giving advice on how to do an accent, and a shot of John Frieda Beach Blonde in Pitt’s bathroom. And Twelve tops its predecessor in self-mocking celebrity cameos, with Topher Grace returning as a hotel-room-trashing prima donna who says he “totally phoned in my performance in that Dennis Quaid movie.” (That would be In Good Company, due out later this month.) And Bruce Willis delivers an extended, delightful self-parody, hitting on every beautiful young woman in sight.
As François Toulour, a rich, sophisticated sort of super-catburglar, the French actor Vincent Cassel gives the amusing over-the-top performance we demand of a French villain and displays a remarkable physical agility (some of his very demanding stunts were clearly not done by doubles). Robbie Coltrane and Eddie Izzard put in brief but memorable performances, and two very gifted, very welcome Soderbergh alumni pop up near the end of the film. The funniest sequence, though, and perhaps the most tense, belongs to Julia Roberts’ Tess, but to say more about that would ruin the fun.
Soderbergh also brings his zippy visual style to the film, making good use of the energy he gets from the handheld camera and keeping the images layered, complex, and full of thoughtful detail. (Such as when Damon’s Linus Caldwell is getting ready for a big meeting and a long line of Post-Its stretches down his wall. Soderbergh never draws attention to it; it’s just there because that’s how Linus would prepare.) There’s a lot here that’s pleasurable, and I’d advise anyone who enjoyed Eleven to see it (anyone who didn’t enjoy Eleven should start checking for a pulse), but with lowered expectations.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.