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Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005
Pulling a heist on moviegoers
Some films require a lot of effort when you're reviewing them, needing well-considered essays that seek to tease layers of meaning and significance out of the work in question. Other films, however, can be confidently dismissed with a word, something sharp and preferably a bit nasty, like "time-waster" or "yawn-a-thon."
Did somebody say "Ocean's Twelve?" I'm sorry, I must have nodded off at the keyboard again. I'm still trying to shake the deeply soporific hangover induced by watching the most boring, pointless, lifeless sequel since, well . . . "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle"?
It's not like expectations were all that high for this flick. "Ocean's Eleven," its predecessor -- itself a remake of a less than fondly remembered 1960 throwaway -- wasn't exactly a modern classic. It did, however, make everybody involved truckloads of money, which pretty much mandates a sequel, in much the same way that eating a delicious dinner leads to taking a big, fat dump.
"Ocean's Eleven," while a quintessentially "lite" film, at least had a certain panache going for it: a breezy, braggadocio attitude that allowed it to sail over its inadequacies. True to the 120-proof vibe of the "Rat Pack" original, it felt like everyone onscreen was having fun, an angle that was further played up when its fistful of stars hit the road to promote the film.
"Ocean's Twelve," however, feels like everyone can't be bothered. Although working with the same star-studded cast and the same casino heist premise, the film lacks humor, suspense, sex appeal, sharp dialogue, pretty much anything that could pass for "entertainment." It relies instead on the spectacle of Really Famous Actors like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts, basically just mugging it up.
One of director Steven Soderbergh's favorite devices here is to just have all his actors in a room planning a robbery while munching on snacks, talking over each other and digressing wildly in an improv sort of way, while a handheld camera -- shaky, of course -- adds to the illusion that we're watching something loose, fresh. It's reminiscent of the diner scene in "Reservoir Dogs," but Quentin Tarantino had sharp banter to back it up. Soderbergh keeps cutting his scenes on punchlines that just aren't there: A typical bit featuring Clooney and Pitt has them watching a "Happy Days" rerun on TV and exits on Clooney deadpanning "That guy doing Potzie is unbelievable." Badda-bing.
The best joke in the whole film is a Bruce Willis cameo, and that speaks volumes. Clooney, Pitt and Damon are laid-back to the point of fading into the scenery, while potentially more interesting characters played by Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac and Elliott Gould are given just some scraps to chew on. The script, it should be said, gave them less to work with than a Starbucks menu.
If it seems like I'm not saying much about the plot, that's because there's not much to say. Casino owner Andy Garcia has fingered Danny Ocean (Clooney) and his gang as the people who ripped him off in the first film, and he wants his money back, or else. The gang gets back together and they're soon headed to Amsterdam and Rome, to pull a couple of tricky heists to pay off their debt. Things are complicated by a professional rival, the Night Fox (Vincent Cassel, in Gallic Villain mode), and the fact that Rusty (Pitt) is sleeping with Interpol cop Isabel (Catherine Zeta-Jones), an angle that has surfaced before in Soderbergh's "Out of Sight."
If you haven't seen the first film, though, you'll be hard-pressed to figure out the relations between the characters, and there's no evidence for the notion that each member of the gang brings a special skill to the job. The addition of Zeta-Jones, meanwhile, only serves to remind us how much sharper she was paired with Clooney in "Intolerable Cruelty."
Heist flicks are a dime a dozen these days, and "Ocean's Twelve" feels more like an ad for designer eyewear than a film that revels in the trickery and timing of a cleverly executed robbery. Far better -- and breezier -- was last year's "The Good Thief," also a remake (of "Bob le Flambeur"), but with a helluva better focus on the basics of the genre. "Ocean's Twelve" ultimately seems to be nothing more than an exercise in style, with Soderbergh seeing if he can sustain two hours of '90s nostalgia for bad '70s TV wrapped around a '50s Rat Pack vehicle. Does he pull it off? Well . . .
I'm sorry, I must have nodded off again. Did someone say "Ocean's Twelve?"