As evidenced by last week's Meet the Fockers, there is now a sense in which comedies no longer require sequels - they can just be remade instead. Why bother with the time-consuming business of "what happened next" when you can simply play variations on the best, or at least the best remembered, gags from the original? This cynical line of thinking was at least understandable in the light of Meet the Parents, a bumper pack of Ben Stiller's nightmare moments on which people were still happily snacking months later.
Yet I can't recall a single instance of somebody saying, "Do you remember that great bit from Ocean's Eleven?". This might be for the obvious reason that it didn't have any great bits; indeed, Steven Soderbergh seemed to have conceived the movie as something so heartless and disposable that it might have been odd if something had snagged on our memory. It was a glossy heist picture that went straight down without touching the sides. The challenge that Soderbergh and co have set themselves is not to see whether they can take it further but whether they can pull off the same trick twice.
Ocean's Twelve picks up from the first movie with a montage of the corrupt casino boss Andy Garcia tracking down the crew who robbed his establishment three years previously. This, by the way, involves him turning up in person to collar each crew member, a chore one might have thought he'd delegate to his people, given that Ocean's 11 are now dispersed to all corners of the country. Was it the air miles he was thinking of? Inevitably, he wants his money repaid, with interest, and he gives them two weeks to get hold of it. So the suave leader of the gang, Danny Ocean (George Clooney), has to regroup his felonious fellows, starting with his right-hand man Rusty (Brad Pitt), and devise a plan to raise something in the region of $200m - in short, to steal big.
The screenplay has been credited to George Nolfi, though so desultory is the structure that one could easily believe that Soderbergh is making it up from scene to scene. Like Ocean's Eleven, the film is essentially about the great time you can have being a movie star. First of all, there are easy-on-the-eye European locations, not just Amsterdam and Rome but the loveliness of Lake Como, where Clooney has offered his own villa for convenient postcard shots.
Second, there's the bonus of being part of a large cast, so nobody is required to do much work. Catherine Zeta-Jones gets the lion's share as an Interpol agent pursuing this mild bunch, which should indicate the level of realism at which the film is operating. Clooney and Pitt do little more than riff over one another like a couple of bored jazzmen (Clooney's dark suit-white shirt combo gives a tighter performance than he does). And, in possibly the most ridiculous role of the lot, Vincent Cassel plays a French playboy-thief known as "The Night Fox", who gets to perform a kind of modern dance routine as he sinuously evades the infrared security beams of a museum he has burgled.
Perhaps fearing that boredom might afflict those lower down the cast list, Soderbergh turns their paltry parts into glib in-jokes. Thus Matt Damon as the hesitant Linus tells Pitt, "I'd like to play a more central role this time around", meaning the heist but nudging us in the ribs about his abbreviated screentime in the previous movie. Bernie Mac's character is seen nipping in and out of nail parlours, a nod to the actor's love of manicures, though hardly of any comic moment to the rest of us. Don Cheadle, who must have read criticism of his atrocious "cockney" accent in Ocean's Eleven, fearlessly reprises it here but gets to send it up at the same time: "The accent is crucial," he advises a fellow-crook. "It's the first thing people notice." Ho ho.
Julia Roberts as Ocean's wife Tess is handed the loudest in-joke of the lot. Sidelined for most of the story, Tess is summoned to Rome after the gang runs into trouble and, in order to create a diversion, has to appear disguised as - get this - Julia Roberts. So that's Julia Roberts playing a character faking the look of Julia Roberts. When a smirking Bruce Willis appears to say, "Hi, Julia", you can safely assume that, by this point, Ocean's Twelve has disappeared up its own fundament.
Soderbergh might argue that this kind of movie is just harmless fun, a holiday from the serious career work of Traffic and Solaris. Well, that would be fine if it were just a bunch of pals horsing around with a video camera for their own entertainment. But it's hard not to feel slightly insulted when movie stars, some of them supposedly proud of their craft, take to celebrating their part in self-consciously third-rate material and then expect to be rewarded for it. I did laugh once, when Elliott Gould is having his palm read and suddenly his nemesis shows up. Outraged, Gould turns to the fortune-teller: "You couldn't see this?" Not much of a return for a two-hour comedy.
Of course, the one good in-joke that the movie could have played, it misses completely. It emerges, late in the already incomprehensible plot, that Zeta-Jones's character has a long-lost father, the éminence grise of master thieves. As she is conducted to his secret hideaway for a reunion, the puzzle over his identity gathers: which celebrity will do the cameo as Catherine's pop? If the film-makers had had any nerve, or indeed any sense of humour, they would have hired Michael Douglas.
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