Soderbergh fails in his second big heist
FILM OF THE WEEK
Ocean's Twelve (12A) **
WITH his remould of the old Rat Pack movie, Ocean’s Eleven, Steven Soderbergh delivered a rarity: a remake that was better than the original. True, the original was a mess, but Soderbergh’s film had panache.
In fact, panache was almost all that it had, but it was executed with such boldness and charisma that its shortcomings didn’t seem to matter. The assembled actors - most notably George Clooney and Brad Pitt - had a ball, and the director added the star vehicle to his list of conquered genres.
The sequel to a remake is a more difficult animal. This time, charisma isn’t enough. Indeed, in the absence of plot clarity, baffled viewers may find themselves looking for enlightenment in the 1,000-watt smiles of the leading men. There is none to be found. Instead, there is fine dentistry, playful self-regard, obfuscation and the nagging sensation that the actors are amusing themselves by making it up as they go along. How else to explain the scene where Robbie Coltrane - playing a criminal go-between in Amsterdam - gets to say: "When I was four years old, I watched my auntie kill a spider with a tea cosy. Years later, I realised there was not a spider. It was my Uncle Harold?" It is, apparently, a code.
In terms of a story, the film begins three years after the previous episode. Back then, the gang, led by Danny Ocean (Clooney), stole a fortune from the Las Vegas casino-owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). In films, such acts are known as heists - a word which connects a genre in which robbery, quirks of character and a funky soundtrack are combined in a manner that is designed to make criminals seem sympathetic. But, where Ocean’s Eleven was playful, Twelve is self-conscious, and weakened by a strain of mockery which positions the drama on the edge of parody. Soderbergh may be attempting to locate the stylish implausibility of 1960s’ television, while also nodding to James Bond, but his control of the comedy is weak-wristed. Evidently the actors are enjoying themselves, but the absence of dramatic tension makes it less fun for the audience. Knowingness and innocence make a bitter cocktail and Soderbergh fails in much the same manner as the Coen Brothers did when they tried to revive The Ladykillers.
This time round, the gang are portrayed as bumbling amateurs whose main talent is bickering. It is asking a lot to imagine that they could steal a handful of Pick’n’Mix from the foyer of Woolworths, yet the plot requires them to scoop up $190 million from the museums of Europe. In order to add the remotest hint of a sexual frisson, Catherine Zeta-Jones is employed as Isabel Lahiri, a stiletto-heeled cop and sometime girlfriend of Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt). She plays the part with the predatory power of a blancmange.
Moving the story into the terrain of the comic book, Vincent Cassel is the Night Fox, a baron who is said to be rich, bored and talented, but whose character is never allowed to develop beyond the sneering superiority of a Batman villain. Garcia, with his cigar, silver-tipped cane and white silk neckerchief, is similarly cartoonish, and could have passed for the Penguin if the lighting had been more sympathetic.
One or two of the jokes are funny. Elliott Gould - a more convincing comic performer than, say, Matt Damon - gets to wear silly glasses and say something about "the leaning tower of Pizza". Gould and Pitt share a moment in which they discuss a scene from Miller’s Crossing. Clooney, meanwhile, has a comic interlude in which he asks Don Cheadle whether he looks 50. "Yeah," Cheadle replies. "I mean, from the neck up."
The music, by David Holmes, is suitably chunky, but the film struggles to make good use of the large cast. There is playfulness in the camerawork - a plane is shown landing through a camera lying on its side - but the action is like a fantasy compiled from the advertisements in a men’s magazine. The actors are merely inhabiting the locations and wearing the clothes.
In the way it plunders the reputations of its cast, Ocean’s Twelve is like the later series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet: never entirely disagreeable, but always pointless. It is postmodernism without pain. In the most memorable scene, Julia Roberts is required to impersonate Julia Roberts. "I just can’t do it," she tells Damon. "You’re playing a role. I’m apparently playing a real person. It’s just wrong."
At this point, Bruce Willis appears, playing Bruce Willis. In order to prove that she is Julia Roberts, Julia Roberts has to phone home. Before long, she is talking to herself.