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Posted on Thu, Dec. 09, 2004

'Ocean's Twelve' deep-sixed by its own celebrity worship

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

REVIEW: Ocean's 12
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language)
Running time: 2:05
Cast: Andy Garcia, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Brad Pitt
Directed and written by: Steven Soderbergh

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Until it self-destructs in the final 40 minutes, "Ocean's Twelve" - the sequel to the remake of the 1960 Rat Pack heist comedy - is supple, imaginative and very funny; it's so good, it made me start to think I was all wrong about that remake, "Ocean's Eleven" (2001).

That movie, directed (like this one) by Steven Soderbergh, struck me as smug and self-congratulatory - less a breezy caper than a "Vanity Fair" photo shoot come to life; a worshipful and gushing ode to its own all-star cast. Rarely have so many movie stars winked so often - occasionally at the audience but mostly just at each other - and not required an emergency trip to the ophthalmologist.

To the good news first: "Ocean's Twelve" is a more relaxed movie than the first film. It's genuinely witty instead of naggingly hip, and, as photographed by Soderbergh himself, it's often just plain gorgeous. In a sly twist on the superhero-in-exile theme that also was used in "The Incredibles," the film begins with Danny Ocean (George Clooney) living in suburbia with his wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), and longing for the rush of his erstwhile criminal ways. He gets his chance when his archrival, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), tracks Ocean down, along with all 10 members of his old crew, and gives them two weeks to return the money the team stole from him, plus interest. (Otherwise, Benedict plans to murder them all.)

So Ocean's crew heads off to Amsterdam, Netherlands, with gorgeous investigator Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones) hot on its trail, and the movie itself takes a series of pleasingly haywire turns. Inspired, both visually and structurally, by Robert Altman's genre-bending exercises of the 1970s - movies such as "Thieves Like Us" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" that deliberately subsumed genre elements (the big shootout, the car chase) into the background - Soderbergh has given us a kind of self-loathing heist movie.

At every step, "Ocean's Twelve" (written by George Nolfi) resists the familiar heist-genre trappings, right down to the fact that every heist we see - including the climactic one - unfolds in breezy, briskly edited, black-and-white flashback.

If this sounds frustrating or coy, it's not. Quite the opposite: It feels tantalizingly open-ended and very playful. (It helps that, whereas Clooney, Brad Pitt and Roberts never stopped preening and mugging in the first film, this one is a true ensemble piece that's willing to misplace its biggest stars for long stretches of time.)

As in those classic Altman movies, Soderbergh's camera never stops languidly circling and zooming, and his framing is appealingly loosey-goosey. He creates an atmosphere in which you feel as if anything can happen. This approach pays off, most notably in a series of terrific comic routines that teeter on the brink of (but never quite cross into) self-indulgence. Watch out, especially, for Casey Affleck and Scott Caan speculating on Clooney's age; or a terrific bit in which Matt Damon, as the angst-ridden pickpocket Linus Caldwell, tries to keep up with Pitt and Clooney in a highly technical conversation with another thief (Robbie Coltrane).

So what's not to love? Well, as I said, it self-destructs, though a more apt description might be to say that it "jumps the shark" (a term more often applied to aging TV shows that do desperate things to get viewers back). I won't give anything away, other than to say that the twist in question involves Tess' surprise re-emergence into the proceedings - and it's the moment where the movie becomes unbearably high on its own celebrity quotient.

What were Soderbergh and company thinking, with a turn of events so glaringly obnoxious - so self-referential "and" self-reverential - that it alienates anyone in the audience earning less than $15 million a year? This final section of "Ocean's Twelve" drowns in a sea of dumb cameos and oblique in-references (to, of all things, the box-office failure of Soderbergh's last movie, "Full Frontal"). The movie ends, much like the first film, with the slightly sickening sight of the entire cast yukking it up in a sepulchral chamber, as they induct yet another new celebrity into their ranks. It's an image of proselytism and conversion, and the movie asks us to look on with both deference and envy.

I ended my review of the previous film by writing, " 'Ocean's Eleven' is the most convincing proof yet that the cult of celebrity has become America's new religion."

"Ocean's Twelve" is all that and more.

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