Ocean’s Eleven was an entertaining and popular lark, a respite for ridiculously prolific director Steven Soderbergh between heftier projects like Traffic and Solaris. It was an airy, pleasant, entirely unremarkable caper movie with a triple-A-list cast and a corresponding $85 million budget. Ocean’s Twelve is pure arrogance, taking its predecessors success as license to do absolutely, unquestionably whatever the hell it wants. I appreciated the audacity and found most of its indulgences amusing, but it’s easy to see how someone not on the same page may be put off.
Impressively, the absurd self-awareness does not translate into something insufferably heavy-handed, as I had feared it would. Soderbergh is a master of pacing, and he keeps the proceedings agreeably loose-limbed; the imposing 124-minute running time is a breeze. That the ludicrous (though very funny) screenplay contortions do not feel in the least labored is a hell of an accomplishment; that there is still a sensical story is a kind of miracle.
The screenplay was written by George Nolfi, whose script for Richard Donner’s Timeline does not inspire confidence. What is nigh wondrous about his work here is the way the gimmicks and the non sequitur banter are so tightly integrated with a clever, engaging caper plot. The movie thus works on two levels — as a grandly expensive inside joke and as a competent heist flick, even one that respects audience intelligence enough to keep blatant exposition to a minimum. In the third act, Ocean’s Twelve abandons all pretense of making sense on a literal level, but it sustains its internal logic; the movie makes up its own rules, but it invariably follows them. Though it may not work in the same way as, say, Frank Oz’ The Score, it works on its own merits.
The main attraction here, of course, is the cast, and the advertising was sure to stress that “yes, they’re all back.” “They” refers to Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Scott Caan and Carl Reiner; there is also the added bonus of Catherine Zeta-Jones as pesky French law enforcement, and a few surprises I won’t reveal. A large part of the charm is the way the film creates characters that brilliantly play off the stars’ established personas to create an added dimension for those who fancy themselves cinephiles.
Not altogether surprisingly, the most valuable contribution comes from Matt Damon, whose active befuddlement is not only hilarious in its own right but serves as a brilliant foil for the rest of the cast, who are considerably more suave (favorite line: “Are you hosting a telethon?”). If I weren’t generally averse to sweeping generalizations, I would venture that he is my favorite actor at the moment; he has a wry sense of humor I love, and the ability to sell me on any character he’s given.
For his part, Soderbergh seems to be developing not one directorial m.o. but several different ones that he varies depending on the kind of project he’s tackling. Here, he maintains his affinity for varying distinct color schemes (watch the opening scenes in particular) and a nonchalant kind of humor that doesn’t seem to care whether or not you laugh (see also: Full Frontal). He has yet to impress me with something truly remarkable, but I can’t deny his range or raw talent; now that he no longer needs to shoot five movies in three years, perhaps he will shoot even higher.
Ocean’s Twelve, meanwhile, is just a very, very funny film, and a relaxed, upbeat experience. I saw it on a double bill with Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera, which nearly killed me; this is a pitch-perfect antidote to the lumbering Oscar bait that will hit theaters at roughly the same time.