' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Ocean's Twelve

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

My Great Movies: Ocean's Twelve

Upon its release in 2004, Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Twelve", the follow-up to 2001's wildly successful "Ocean's Eleven", was somewhat maligned, accused of being "indulgent", "lazy" and "self satisfying", a movie driven not so much by plot as star power. "Ocean's Eleven", a remake of the sixties Rat Pack film, on the other hand, was a more conventional, though not entirely straight-forward, heist picture. It contained star power, yes, but kept its focus on the stars' attempt to pull off three casino robberies simultaneously. My question would be this: Have you seen the original "Ocean's Eleven"? Of the two there is no question that "Ocean's Twelve" is the one which captures its essence. In fact, "Ocean's Twelve" is essentially our era's own Rat Pack movie.

No, George Clooney and Brad Pitt don't break into boozy song and dance, but the night before an exotic theft attempt the two men sit on a hotel sofa, drink wine, and discuss items of no particular consequence, like tattoo removal. What does this moment have to do with anything? Nothing. The plot in "Ocean's Twelve" is the wine and it takes the actors to swirl that plot around in the glass and bring out the flavor.

The movie opens with casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia, dressing like a modern day King Tut), the man from whom "Ocean's Eleven" stole, tracking the gang down one by one and advising they have two weeks to pay him back what they stole plus interest. The crew re-gathers, headed by Danny Ocean (Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Pitt), and with most of them having blown through the majority of their money determines to pull as many jobs as it takes to earn the price on their heads.

Of course, that is not all in this bottle of wine. No, no, no, there is the citrusy aroma of Catherine Zeta Jones's Interpol agent, a former lover of Rusty's, hot on the gang's trail, and the puckery tannins of a mysterious thief known as The Night Fox (Vincent Cassel) who has his own devious agenda, and the lingering presence of Danny's wife, Tess (Julia Roberts).

The first heist Ocean's gang has to pull is the movie in capsule. An agoraphobe who never leaves his house is in possession of.....oh, hell, I don't remember. It doesn't matter. Something valuable. And for reasons of no consequence other than to allow the heist to become more dramatic they have to raise the entire mansion up a foot from its base in order to get a clear line of sight to make a shot that will deactivate the alarm. Or whatever. The job, you see, isn't the point. In fact, Soderbergh shows the actual break-in to acquire whatever it is they are after in fast forward. He doesn't want to be bothered with these mundane details when the real details are in the interactions of all the characters before and after.

Pre-heist, the gang sits around its Amsterdam hotel room, drinking and eating and riffing. Matt Damon's Linus Caldwell is not fond of the fact they are stealing from an agoraphobe and objects to his cohorts calling their target a "freak". "Was Emily Dickinson a freak?" he asks. In the background you hear a character wonder, "Who's Emily Dickinson?" This goes on and on, around and around. Can't you imagine all Rat Pack films were done this way? Set the camera up and let Frank, Dino, Sammy, Joey, and The Other Guy go. The sequence ends when Elliot Gould's cigar-chomping Ruben Tischkoff yells at Frank Hatton (the late Bernie Mac) to get out of the bathroom and that's when you realize everyone in the gang but Mac was present in the scene. Was Mac not available that day? Did they just go ahead and roll film anyway and then realize at the end they should address his absence? It lends to the feeling of looseness.

The scene is one of many which Damon manages to hijack right out from under everyone else. Linus being his character's name is not coincidence, and one can easily imagine him clutching a security blanket throughout the film. He's all nervous engery, desperate to rise to the level of Danny and Rusty's thieving mastery. (One character refers to him as, "Linus Caldwell, junior varsity.") On the flight from America to Europe he wakes a sleeping Rusty and states he's ready to "play a more central role." The scene in which he discovers exactly what a "central role" entails and that, in fact, he's not ready play it at all is pure genius, both in its dialogue and the reaction shots of the actors.

Yet that sequence is not even the best in the film. No, the best comes later when Tess is enlisted to join the crew in an effort to save its skin. If you have not seen it revealing too much would be a mistake and so I will tread carefully and observe that my long-standing theory that Julia Roberts is more Movie Star than Actress has never been summed up more succinctly. The scene seems aware of this fact and plays straight to it. It involves two cameos, though not at all in the way we have come to expect cameos to be used. Roger Ebert writes: "What I liked is that one cameo role is used to expose the other cameo role. When you get to the point of interlocking cameos, you have ascended to a level of invention that is its own reward." One character sums up the entire sequence right before it happens as being "Italian television crazy." It is one of the ten funniest sequences I have ever seen in a film.

An encounter near the end at The Night Fox's Italian villa seats Danny and Tess together on a couch, arms around one another, sipping champagne, and the only thought you can possibly have is this: Why in the world has no one put George Clooney and Julia Roberts in a Grant-Hepburn-esque romance? In this moment as they torment The Night Fox they have enough chemistry to blow up the whole laboratory.

Brad Pitt, meanwhile, is merely the epitome of all which is cool. He never does too much, because he doesn't have to, aside from letting his suits talk for him and making sure to have either something to eat or something to drink in every scene. Seriously, has ever a movie character indulged in food and beverage more than Rusty Ryan? A knock on the door cannot be answered without procuring another forkful of salad. A conversation on the phone cannot be complete without munching on a few chips. He steps out of a coffee shop onto the street to have a brief chat with Linus but hauls his espresso cup with him.

I tend not to watch gag reels and such on DVDs because often you will see the actors and actresses having great fun and then wonder why that attitude was unable to work its way into the actual movie. There is no gag reel connected to "Ocean's Twelve" and why would there be? All the fun that must have permeated the sets is in the film. The final scene feels as if they simply let the camera run during the cast party. There is one moment when Ocean's entire gang is sitting in a circle and the camera pans to one person who then looks to the person beside him who the camera then pans to who then looks at the person beside him who the camera then pans to who then....you get the point. On and on this goes without dialogue. I envision Clooney at cocktail hour betting Soderbergh he couldn't make an entire scene of camera pans exciting. (He does, by the way.)

You will notice I have been not been doing much more than describing single scenes while forgoing descriptions of precisely how the movie chooses to arrive at these various moments. One might be tempted to trot out the tired, old "what was the point?" argument except in this case there is a point to the feeling of each scene being nothing more than " a very elaborate show." I use quotation marks because it is a phrase employed by a character at a particular point to explain everything. Sometimes the superfluous is very much necessary.

Personally, I'm not as interested in by-most-of-the-numbers heist flicks like "Ocean's Eleven". I prefer films where four characters sit around a table and quite literally talk about nothing ("If all the animals along the equator were capable of flattery than Thanksgiving and Halloween would fall on the same day"). It's why I prefer "Ocean's Twelve" and why I think it just happens to be comedic genius.

2 comments:

Wretched Genius said...

Brad Pitt stated (at the time of the first movie) that Rusty was not the type of guy who would ever sit down and stay still long enough to eat a normal meal, and so they always show him with some kind of on-the-go food in every scene.

Nicholas Prigge said...

Nice. I did not know that. I can see that. Admittedly, my favorite Rusty-Ryan-eating-scene is totally the one in "Ocean's 11" when he's eating the burger (?) at the end and gets that momentary bout of heartburn. So classic.

In fact, this reminds me that I should relay the story of when I told my friend Dan that in "Ocean's 13" there should be a scene where Clooney, Pitt and Pacino are all in a room literally reading the phonebook so we could truly see who the best actor is. And Dan said, "Well, Brad Pitt would win because you know he'd be eating something."