reviewed by Steve Sailer
The American Conservative, January 17, 2005
As a sequel to a remake, "Ocean's Twelve" sounds dire. Yet, in the Year of the Dud, this gleeful heist comedy with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts manages to become one of 2004's smartest, most entertaining films by rewriting some of the rules for a commercial screenplay. Just don't expect, action or suspense. This is pure screwball comedy.
Today ought to be a new golden age of movies. Special effects, cinematography, and sound are all steadily progressing. Audiences can now absorb more rapid editing. Budgets are bigger than ever, averaging $64 million in 2003, so sets and costumes are better than ever. Able character actors are everywhere, and today's big stars have broader skills than their glamorous but repetitious predecessors.
Still, judging from 2004's festival of ineptitude, Hollywood is drifting ever farther from consistent competence. The weak links have been half-baked scripts. Would-be screenwriters throng workshops, so there should be abundant talent available. Sadly, writers and the producers who hire them have worked themselves into self-defeating ruts.
Most remakes fail because producers commission updatings of over-achieving films, such as Frank Sinatra's "The Manchurian Candidate," where everything clicked. In contrast, Sinatra's "Ocean's 11" was a notorious under-achiever. The Rat Pack signed on to play WWII commandos reuniting to knock over five Las Vegas casinos so they could film during the day and croon in the stage shows at night. But they forgot to schedule any snooze time, so they sleepwalked through their roles.
Still, the core concept of an action-comedy caper showcasing male camaraderie was appealing. After Ted Griffin penned a sharp new script, veteran producer Jerry Weintraub and ace director Steven Soderbergh, an Oscar-winner for "Traffic," had little trouble assembling a killer cast. "Ocean's Eleven" was one of the biggest hits of 2001 with adult audiences, who appreciated its 1940s Howard Hawks feel.
The visual chemistry of the gang's leaders was memorable because Pitt exemplifies the scruffy, boyish-looking stars of post-Sixties pop culture, while Clooney, who is only three years older but appears to hail from an earlier generation, is a throwback to Clark Gable's era of glamour, when actors tried to look like grown men.
Sequels often fail because the screenplays aren't ready by the time the cameras must start rolling. So, Weintraub instead bought newcomer George Nolfi's strong, already-finished script about cat burglars in Europe, "Honor among Thieves," and had him and Soderbergh adapt it for the ensemble.
Globalization means that about half of box office revenue now comes from non-English speakers, who admire explosions more than hard-to-translate verbal wit. "Ocean's Twelve," though, reverses the usual ratio, discarding almost all the bang-bang-boom-boom in favor of overlapping jokes delivered at screwball comedy velocity.
In "Ocean's Twelve," these nonviolent crooks are more endearing than ever, making Fagin's tuneful pickpockets in the musical "Oliver" seem as paranoid and murderous as Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs." The new film imagines a crime world descended from some genteel English Ealing Studio comedy, where there is both honor and consummate professionalism among thieves.
Nolfi understands Griffin's insight that with a cast this likeable, the audience will forgive the inevitable stupid plot twists as long as there is an abundance of clever moments.
One of modern Hollywood's hokiest clichés is the multiethnic crime gang. (Real criminals prefer to work with networks of relatives, because they can't trust random felons.) When you see a multicultural gang, you can be sure the movie is going to be lame -- except the "Ocean's" franchise, which slyly skewered the Eleven's contrived diversity. When Clooney asked Pitt whom they should recruit, he replied, "Off the top of my head, I'd say you're looking at a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros, and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever."
Nolfi dreams up even more elaborate pseudo-argot that he leaves hilariously undefined, knowing that any explanation couldn't live up to your imagination. At one point, desperately trying to improvise a plan after their first one fails catastrophically, the burglars riff through their voluminous working knowledge of their trade's curiously titled ruses, immediately rejecting each as impractical until they pause upon the promising "Hell in a Handbasket."
They glance at each other with hope, until Matt Damon interjects, "Nah, can't train a cat that fast."
The soundtrack provides delightful counterpoint. Keep your ears open for "Souls Along the Way," which was composed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who also appeared in Soderbergh's "Traffic."
Rated PG-13 for language.
To read my latest film
to The American Conservative