In the early phase of his career, Steven Soderbergh might well have been dubbed the father of the Wes Anderson, Spike Jones, et al., school of creative obfuscation. I've no doubt that Soderbergh can and will again make inscrutably brainy pieces of varying distinction like Schizopolis, Kafka, and The Underneath. For now, though, he's the nearest thing we have to a gentleman director, and I mean that as an ardent compliment. For sheer urbane elegance coupled with technical mastery and lush, old-fashioned elan, no one working for the studios today comes close to the versatile Soderbergh, who has shown himself as fluent in the language of old-Hollywood romance (Out of Sight) as in the grainy nether regions of the international drug trade (Traffic), or the L.A. crime world (The Limey), or in the plebeian energies of populist agitprop (Erin Brockovich). In his 2001 remake of the Rat Packer crime caper Ocean's Eleven, Soderbergh seemed to reach a stylistic peak. And though it's not unusual for him to take a break between big pictures and yield to a personal indulgence, this time around he's clearly sticking with what works. If anything, Ocean's Twelve (which opens Friday, Dec. 10, at the Metro and other theaters) tops the suave formal daring of its predecessor, and I've no doubt that even in the crush of holiday movies, it will work a similar box-office miracle.

When last we saw Daniel Ocean (George Clooney) and his ragged crew of petty-crime experts, they had penetrated the inaccessible vault of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas and parted fastidious casino boss Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) from $160 million of his fortune, not to mention his girlfriend, Tess (Julia Roberts). Now they languish, like the Incredibles, in miserable legitimacy from which, in a puckish and very funny reversal of the opening scenes of Ocean's Eleven, they're sprung when Benedict dispatches his thugs to round them up and demand they give him back his money. Following a series of increasingly impossible heists around Europe, Daniel and his merry band find themselves pitted not only against high-tech security gizmos and the cops (spearheaded by art-crime specialist Catherine Zeta-Jones), but against the continent's premier playboy and thief, the Night Fox (Frenchman Vincent Cassel of Irréversible), who never saw a Fabergé egg he didn't like.

Ocean's Twelve's many twists and turns are intricately fitted together and accessorized with nifty flashback and pauses for nutty banter. The movie, which has a crisply witty screenplay by George Nolfi, pulls so many fast ones on both its characters and its audience that I can tell you little more about the story that wouldn't ruin it for you. Suffice it to say that the movie starts off flitting among several American states and ends up racing among several trendy European capitals; that Roberts gets to impersonate a famous movie star; that other Soderbergh pals show up for gallant cameos; that Cherry Jones does something surprising for Matt Damon's hilariously overambitious pickpocket; and that Zeta-Jones, gorgeous (despite a duck-bill hairdo) in black leather and red silks, discovers that the line between crime and crime-fighting is finer than she'd thought. The heist scenes are as terrific as they are hilariously abortive.

Ocean's Twelve may be one of the most glamorous, goofy, and heartfelt films about failure ever made, and as soon as I get out from under Oscar-qualifying weepies about incest, child-molesting, and paralysis, I'm going to run out and see it again, just to cheer myself up.