I'm a big fan of heist movies. To orient everybody, I'm a huge David Mamet fan, and of his films, my favorite is probably House of Games. I was so-so on the first Ocean - I felt it was needlessly complex and not nearly as fun a romp as it seemed to feel it was. The entire enterprise just felt underwhelming, although there were a few good sequences. So, it was with slight trepidation that I braved a bustling Saturday matinee crowd to check out the sequel.
It's an interesting movie, one I enjoyed and didn't expect. I'd say it's probably Soderbergh's best film since Out of Sight, and it feels most like that movie out of anything he's done.
I say that because Sight is a comedy posing as a crime drama. All the elements of a crime drama are there - an elaborate heist, an evil gangster, a rich patsy, stints in prison - but the movie's really an ensemble comedy (and helped considerably by the comic sensibilities of Don Cheadle, George Clooney, Ving Rhames, Albert Brooks, Steve Zahn and so on).
Twelve has the same kind of feel. It's a comedy posing as a caper movie. Except it's not really posing very well. Or even trying, really.
The capers themselves are extremely forgettable and, again, underwhelming. Maybe this is just a function of the times. There are far more caper movies than there are screenwriters capable of writing a truly intricate caper. The way Soderbergh sets up his "scores," in fact, makes them innately confusing. We're usually not in on how the caper works until it has already happened, and then there's a "reveal" sequence (usually in grainy black and white) where we see what took place while we were distracted by the sheer exuberance of the filmmaking or the star power.
But by making the various mechanations of the plot (and it's a doozy, involving double-crossing rival bandits) drift around in the background, Soderbergh plays to his strengths - the sheer likability of his stars and his skill as a director. George Clooney and Brad Pitt are better than in the first film - they could play these characters in their sleep, and they do, and this tossed-off affability suits the franchise exceedingly well. Out of the rest of the "crew," I'd give Casey Affleck the Most Improved Award - I found him somewhat grating in the original and thoroughly winning here - and Matt Damon the Award for Proving He Can Actually Smile on Camera. Actually, his character is probably expanded the most from the original, and he fills the role well. His Linus is pretty much the anti-Jason Bourne, all fumbling gullibility and goofy charm, another possible in-joke from the filmmakers. Soderbergh has had fun, as well, with Julia Roberts' image in the past - playing her against type in Erin Brockovich, Full Frontal and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which he produced and Clooney directed) - but her role here is extremely clever and well-played, the best ironic touch in a movie filled with nice ironic touches. Without ruining everything, it allows her to comment on her iconic status without seeming hauty or self-aggrandizing, and in perfect harmony with the film's third act.
Newcomer Catherine Zeta-Jones does a fine job, I guess, in her part, though she didn't have very much to do, and she's probably the movie's least interesting character.
As I said, I enjoyed Ocean's Twelve a good more than I expected, and considerably more than the first. It's curious to me that Soderbergh has chosen to alternate between bizarre, often interminable vanity projects (such as the utterly unwatchable Full Frontal and the dreary Solaris) with winning delights like Ocean's Twelve. Though I'll admit to enjoying his nutty spoof Schizopolis years ago, I think it's pretty clear he's at his best when working with mainstream, genre material. This is among his best work.