”You know what your problem is?…You’ve met too many people like you.” That’s Tess (Julia Roberts), three years ago in Ocean’s Eleven, telling ex-husband Danny Ocean (George Clooney) why she has lost interest in his hectic, postmodern-prankster brand of ring-a-ding-ding excitement and thievery, and has chosen the dull security of a cosseted life with cold-blooded casino mogul Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) instead. Of course, by the end of Eleven, Benedict has been coolly relieved of $160 million from his impregnable casino vaults by suave Danny and his all-guy team. Tess has fallen all over again for her ex’s twinkle and his resemblance to George Clooney. And the cast of Steven Soderbergh’s swingin’ remake of a junky 40-year-old Rat Pack heist comedy — a starry band including Brad Pitt, Bernie Mac, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Eddie Jemison, Elliott Gould, and Carl Reiner — has hinted that they’re available for a return engagement if the perks are right.
It turns out Tess’ problem with Danny is also the problem with Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve: The sequel is nothing but perks for too many people the director might now claim as Soderbergh’s Fifteen; the high-life travels through Europe include scenes shot in Lake Como, Italy, where Clooney owns a vacation villa. And echoing the laugh-up-its-sleeve air-quote tone that characterizes Ocean’s Twelve’s scammer-on-scammer heist twists (a formula of sharply diminishing returns in any configuration), the script, grown out of George Nolfi’s screenplay Honor Among Thieves, counts on art-imitating-life-imitating-art jokes about Hollywood to amuse an audience presumably thrilled that Bruce Willis would appear in a cameo playing…Bruce Willis! From the cynical, sequel-shaped premise that everything goes as wrong in Twelve for the Ocean organization as it went right in Eleven, and that all characters are fair game for mocking by the actors playing them, Soderbergh has made a film that suggests we’re fools to expect anything more from our entertainment. Is not the appearance of Julia Roberts enough to enchant? the movie smirks.
No, it is not, not even if Roberts’ pregnancy during production becomes a joke on which the film trades with a wink. (”She’s a movie star! She’s not the f—in’ pope!” one character played by a movie star reminds another about the actual actress.)
Plot? If you insist: The gang has divided up their loot and gone straight, or at least straightish; Tess and Danny are married — again. Benedict (with Garcia back in the Lord Fauntleroy wardrobe) has tracked the profit sharers down, demanding repayment with interest — or else. And so it’s showtime again to make back the dough already spent, with two updates: Danny’s frontman Rusty (Pitt), now a distractable Los Angeles hotelier, is involved with a dishy dame (Soderbergh’s Traffic alumna Catherine Zeta-Jones) who happens to be a wily Europol detective. And Danny is in competition with French supervillain François Toulour (Vincent Cassel), a playboy who’s as big a star on the European master-thief circuit as Ocean is Stateside.
With every plan seeming to go wrong (and the audience seeming to be treated as dupes), every already-broad character becomes even broader. And with every character now blobby as a circus clown, the kind of well-chosen giggle that came from seeing a junior star like Topher Grace play an idiot version of himself learning poker from Rusty in Eleven is lost. Damon’s preppy apprentice is parodied as a full-grown screwup of limited capability, as if fulfilling a South Park idea of a Matt Damon character. Gould’s foppish real estate magnate is even more of a Jewish queen. A studiously stubbly, anti-suave Danny watches Happy Days dubbed in Italian on a Roman hotel TV and comments, ”That guy doin’ Potsie is good,” like a gullible slob. There are references to Miller’s Crossing, to Lost in Translation, to that most insider of gals, Julia Roberts’ publicist.
Were Twelve as tart and stylish as Eleven — or as fresh in its sexy glamour as the chemistry was the first time around — then it would be churlish to resent the satisfaction telegraphed in the after-hours tone of the performances. But all of the fun in Ocean’s Twelve takes place off screen, as if behind a VIP-lounge velvet rope. (”It was like summer camp, unbelievably fun and relaxing,” Roberts says in production notes about her work schedule sitting around Clooney’s pool.) What’s on screen is lazy, second-rate, phoned-in — a heist in which it’s the audience whose pockets have been picked.