end of Ocean’s 11, Danny Ocean (George Clooney), Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) and their thieving troupe stole off with $160 million, triumphantly silhouetted against a Las Vegas backdrop to the sound of a lush, orchestrated Clair De Lune. So accomplished was their caper that trying to top it would be insufficient reason to bring them back. Logically, having seen these guys strut their stuff without so much as a hair out of place, we would now have to see them on the back foot. How much better, then, to have the gang’s most celebrated job come back to haunt them.
But if only it hadn’t. Ocean’s 11 was a triumph of style over content and a vast improvement on the Rat Pack vehicle from the 1960s that inspired it.
How regrettably ironic that with Ocean’s 12 Soderbergh, Clooney, Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts et al fall into the very same, shamelessly smug and self-indulgent trap as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and their pals. Watching this feels like being held in a security pen and forced to gawp at a VIP party from behind the cordon. That is not my idea of a good night out.
The film opens with Benedict, villainous victim of the Vegas heist (again played with courageously ratty malevolence and prissy wardrobe by Andy Garcia), somehow identifying and tracking down every one of the gang. Benedict wants his money back, plus interest, or else. Their identities revealed, the gang have little choice but to pay up – which of course they can’t, having been merrily spending their millions.
Thus, despite each in his own way attempting to go straight, they return to crime in a bid to make up the deficit. And with Benedict breathing down their necks Stateside, they set their sights on Europe and some Old World swag.
The direction of the film, and its chief dynamics, are afforded by the two major additions to the cast. Frenchman Vincent Cassel plays François Toulour, the Night Fox, Europe’s most famous thief and the one who, out of a fit of professional pique, ratted on the 11 to Benedict. He wants Ocean to fail and monitors the gang’s progress through Europe, scuppering their efforts at every turn.
Meanwhile Catherine Zeta-Jones (beautiful, foxy, full of guile and immediately outshining everyone else) is introduced as Isabel Lahiri, thief’s daughter turned Interpol detective – and one-time lover of Rusty – who is also on the gang’s trail.
So that’s the mix: the gang, Benedict, the Night Fox and Isabel, with Danny and crew holding much the worst cards; or so it seems.
In the first film, Soderbergh took a pleasurable hour or so introducing the characters, quickly segued into the slick execution of their plan, then flashbacked neatly and succinctly to reveal how they actually pulled it off. Here matters are much more complex – with more jobs, more characters and locations switching between Amsterdam, Paris, Monte Carlo, Lake Como and Rome – but are presented with much less élan.
The flashback and reveal of Ocean’s 11, indeed the playfulness with time and storylines that informs most of Soderbergh’s work, is used too much here, and seems laboured and clumsy by comparison. The gang spend almost the entire film in disarray, which doesn’t suit them, it takes away their panache. While the audience is simply left in the dark, waiting for the twist that will allow us back into the plot. When it comes, it is too little, too late.
Over-egging is also evident in the casting. The script not only has to make room for the original cast, and Cassel and Zeta-Jones, but for a plethora of cameos from the likes of Eddie Izzard, Robbie Coltrane and Albert Finney. You can see the democratisation of the script unwinding before your eyes – everyone is given his or her meagre spot, but fighting for time, not really afforded a chance to shine. It feels more like a patchy revue than a homogeneous film.
Apparently, Soderbergh decided to make a sequel while touring Europe publicising the first film. How cool to shoot in Rome, he must have thought, and how great to get the gang back together; indeed, when shooting on Lake Como, he and some of the cast stayed in George’s lakeside villa. They clearly had a good time. And yes, some of their enjoyment does convey itself: in Clooney and Pitt’s obvious rapport (they should do a Newman-Redford style buddy movie before they get any older), the way the pair of them tease Damon in his character’s key comic scene, and the way that the younger actors mock Clooney about his age. But these are incidental pleasures, to go with the occasional fabulous framing we expect from this director. Overall, the invitation to partake of the film-makers’ high spirits becomes onerous, the post-modern “joke” – that these characters are faux façades for the giggling flesh and blood celebrities beneath – wears extremely thin.
The nadir comes with Roberts playing Tess pretending to be Julia Roberts (because hey – she looks like her!), but getting unstuck when the real Bruce Willis, who knows the “real” Roberts, makes a guest appearance. Any pleasure in watching charismatic stars riff with each other is cauterised by such narcissism.
Since Out Of Sight, Clooney and Soderbergh have forged a formidable film-making team. But they’ve had their fun. It’s time to put the vanity projects to one side and return to real movies. 30 January 2005