Drowning in Mediocrity

Ocean’s Eleven sequel is adrift in a sea of smarm

Josh Bell

Steven Soderbergh's 2001 remake of the Rat Pack caper flick Ocean's Eleven was a light, fun romp with little substance but plenty of style, an excuse for big-name actors like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts to play dress-up and prance around Las Vegas as cool, suave thieves. Coming on the heels of serious, intelligent Soderbergh films like Erin Brockovich and Traffic, Ocean's Eleven was a bit of a trifle, but it was an exceedingly well-made trifle, and a ton of fun to watch.

Ocean's Twelve, Soderbergh's new sequel, is not much fun to watch. It may have been fun to make—the stars spend their time smiling and laughing at one another, and the movie was filmed in several beautiful European locales—but it's a laborious movie-going experience, full of pointless in-jokes, with a bloated 130-minute running time and more characters than you can possibly keep track of. There are a few laughs here and there, but they're little consolation amidst the nonsensical plot and aimless set pieces.

A little over three years after stealing $150 million from Las Vegas casino mogul Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia, going way overboard with the villain shtick this time around), Danny Ocean (Clooney) and his crew are living well off their spoils, when suddenly Benedict locates all 11 thieves and gives them an ultimatum: Pay him back his money, with interest, in two weeks, or be killed.

Thus the entire crew is reunited, led by Danny and his right-hand man Rusty (Pitt). Too notorious to work in the U.S., they head to Europe, where they first plan to steal a rare historical document from a recluse. But they are thwarted by two adversaries: police detective Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who once had a fling with Rusty, and a master thief known as the Nightfox (Vincent Cassel), who resents Ocean and his crew for becoming bigger stars than he is.

Unlike Eleven, which focused on one big heist, Twelve presents several smaller heists that never play out as planned. Thus a film about thieves contains very little stealing, as writer George Nolfi focuses instead on plot twists that come out of left field and leave the viewer baffled rather than enlightened. Nolfi's script originally had nothing to do with the Ocean's characters, and the retrofitting certainly shows. The Benedict connection to Eleven comes off as little more than an excuse to get the characters to Europe, and many of the character traits feel ill-suited to the people we got to know in the first film.

Matt Damon's naïve Linus Caldwell gets a bigger role this time, but the biggest addition is Zeta-Jones as Isabel. Whereas Eleven was all about Danny trying to win back Tess (Roberts) from the evil Benedict, Twelve is all about Rusty trying to win back Isabel from the clutches of respectability. Pitt and Clooney, who sold a comfortable, long-standing friendship between their two characters in Eleven, get only one convincing scene together this time around; otherwise it's as if Danny and Rusty are operating on two separate planets.

It's possible that Nolfi's initial treatment had the core of a good thriller, but it's been stretched so far to accommodate the Ocean's characters that whatever might have been exciting about it is no longer recognizable. The filmmakers seem unsure of what kind of movie they're making, and instead of sticking to the stylish thievery antics that gave Eleven its charm, they throw in self-indulgent Hollywood in-jokes, including an awful, interminable sequence in which Roberts' Tess must pose as Julia Roberts to facilitate a theft. Roberts, as a character impersonating herself, runs into Bruce Willis, playing himself, who mistakes the character for the real Roberts, and at one point calls Roberts on the phone, so that the Roberts character can talk to the actual Roberts (doing her own voice). It's enough to make your head explode.

Furthermore, it's smugly, annoyingly self-congratulatory, the kind of meta-textual nonsense that critics hated in Soderbergh's experimental Full Frontal (which also featured Roberts in a role skewering her own personality). At least there it was in context, as the whole film was about the self-reflexive nature of storytelling. Here, it's just jarring and narcissistic, an especially wrong note in a movie full of wrong notes.

It's hard to get too worked up about, though, since none of the movie holds together, anyway. Soderbergh directs the film like he's bored, throwing in freeze frames, wipes, cutesy titles and odd camera angles just to keep himself awake. He's an accomplished stylist, but the style here serves no purpose. Like the rest of the film, it looks like fun, but the audience is never in on the joke.

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