Back in April of 2006 I wrote a short piece for the Oxford Student Newspaper on why Ocean's Twelve is my favorite movie. That is no longer part of their archives online, so I will reprint it today, before reviewing Ocean's 13 tomorrow.
People I know cannot reconcile my usually excellent taste in movies with the fact that my favourite film is Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve. But it is. And this is why.
I love genres. I wrote a book on superhero comics and Harold Bloom, and my doctoral dissertation at Balliol argues for the existence of an unrecognized genre of poetry. Genres are fun because we get to watch clever writers squirm to invent variations on well-worn themes that must appear, but appear differently to for us to care.
Soderbergh alternates between making popular stuff like Erin Brockovich and experimental stuff like Full Frontal. His Ocean’s Eleven puts charismatic actors in a tightly plotted, fun and likeable movie: it’s a flawless heist film in no need of a sequel. What makes Ocean’s Twelve so tricky is that it is an experimental film meant to follow a popular one.
Ocean’s Twelve, hilariously, destroys its own plot. The heist of Eleven takes up virtually the whole film; the main “heist” of Twelve is a single scene in which our heroes stage a fight so they can switch bags with a guy on a train. At every turn we are directed away from plot, toward watching movie stars on vacation. This is a lot more fun than it should be because Twelve, directed with easy confidence and lazy grace, is floated on a frightening (almost disturbing) level of star charisma from the whole cast, especially Clooney and Pitt.
Big stars don’t give the impression they are playing characters: saying “the George Clooney character” is accurate but emotionally wrong; “George Clooney robs three casinos” is the only description that does Eleven justice. Ocean’s Twelve jacks up this short circuit between big stars and their characters: the first film has Brad Pitt teaching poker to TV actors playing themselves; the sequel makes a “plot” point out of Julia Roberts’s Tess pretending to be Julia Roberts. The plot doesn’t matter because the actors are clearly having fun – debating, for example, whether George Clooney looks his age – and we are invited to have fun with them.
Ocean’s Twelve subversively and paradoxically reinvigorates the heist film by breaking it, by taking the Hollywood maxim that acting is a kind of confidence game to its logical extreme.
When I posted the link on my blog I added a paragraph, so readers here would get more than the readers of the student newspaper:
Because of space limitations I had to pick a scene to stand for a device the film used over and over: I mentioned the silly heist, but there are two more (one by our team, one my a competitor); I mentioned the way actors play themselves, but didn't have space to mention the fantastic Eddie Izzard cameo (where he basically plays himself), or the Bruce Willis one, in which he does play himself (and has to endure Matt Damon saying he figured out the ending of The Sixth Sense); I implied the way the movie puts style over substance, but did not have time to mention the way the meaningless thieves' cant scene, the holographic egg and the Capoiera laser-dance scene stand in for the film as a whole in this respect; and I didn't get to mention the wonderful meta-narrative detail -- not unlike the "actors play themselves" thing -- that the whole "plot" of Twelve is set in motion by an "American businessman" on a boat -- played by Ocean's Twelve producer Jerry Weintraub (who also has a cameo in Eleven).
Ocean's 13 review up tomorrow.