Rarely does a sequel live up to the hype of its predecessor. It’s not because sequels are inherently bad, though many fall prey to the inherent pitfalls of grafting onto a standalone story. Sequels must strike an extremely precarious balance between familiarity and novelty, replicating what fans have enjoyed without retreading exactly the same territory, and directors often struggle to strike that balance. But more often than not, sequels fall prey to the hype itself: as fans eagerly await the next installment in a story, their expectations grow too high for a movie to satisfy, no matter how merits.
Even good sequels can be poorly received by fans. Yet the culture of rewatching offers these misjudged films the chance to be re-examined and redeemed once the zeitgeist has passed, perhaps even establishing legacies regardless of the franchises they belong to. Ocean’s Twelve may not have been the sequel fans expected, but it’s a worthy successor to the subtle brilliance of Ocean’s Elevenand it deserves to be celebrated in its own right.
The public’s first mistake, made by critics and casual viewers alike, was to assess Ocean’s Twelve like a heist movie. This is not a heist film, but an offbeat independent comedy, directed by one of the pioneers of American independent cinema. While it might have been reasonable, initially, for viewers to expect a heist movie to be followed by a heist sequel, that expectation actually reveals one of the quirks of Ocean’s Eleven: the film is ostensibly about a heist, but the tangled machinations of this heist were not what gave Ocean’s Eleven its durability (many bad faith reviews Ocean’s Twelve just ignored the fact that Ocean’s Eleven doesn’t actually tell the audience how the gang will escape with the money, despite Reuben’s first suggestion that escape is the main obstacle to robbing a casino).
On the contrary, the film has become an icon for its acting dynamite and deliciously offbeat humor. This paradox is summed up by Topher Grace’s seminal cameo, the “All…reds” scene. Although Danny and Rusty spend the stage flaunting their criminality, essentially tricking the young actors into making bad bets, it’s Topher’s swaggering revelation that viewers ultimately remember. The rest of the film iterates on this formula; the heist is just misdirection – a flashy scheme that contributes little to the film’s underlying charm.
Sequels should, ideally, play up what worked in the first movie and downplay what was weak, and Ocean’s Twelve fulfills this mandate. The heist itself is all about focus in the final twist, with the remaining screen time devoted to allowing the cast – and their acclaimed director – to shine. Visually, Ocean’s Twelve stuns and delights with his playful camerawork and creative editing; it is, in almost every way, a film aesthetically superior to Ocean’s Eleven.
Soderbergh himself championed the cinema, which evokes Italian cinema of the 1960s with its bright palette, stylish cuts and eminently groovy soundtrack. Still, the artistry doesn’t interfere with the film’s levity – in fact, it enhances the comedy. In the opening scene, for example, most of the tongue-in-cheek subtext is delivered through imagery, culminating in a fantastically absurd freeze-frame of a defenestrated Brad Pitt (the sotto voce opening of “L’Appuntamento”) being the icing on the cake).
The comedy of Ocean’s Twelve is also carried by the performances of its actors, who return to the same roles, but not to the same dynamic. Matt Damon is particularly radiant, whose portrayal of Linus Caldwell seems slightly boosted by Damon’s rise as an action star between Ocean movies. Although his attempts to take on a more central role are always met with mishaps, Linus’ general awkwardness is more comedic and unhappy than outright gnashing of his teeth (as was the case in Ocean’s Eleven) – making Linus one of the most quoted characters in the film.
Julia Roberts’ Tess is also metamorphosed: finished the dark and austere love of Ocean’s Eleven, replaced instead by an effervescent partner in crime, the remote princess in a tower replaced by the precocious co-conspirator. The meta-performance in which Tess impersonates Julia Roberts is a truly daring writing twist, but Roberts pulls it off masterfully – the unflinchingly goofy sequence is a highlight of the film.
Yet the true protagonists of the franchise are not overshadowed; instead, they profit from the reversal of momentum, Rusty almost reveling in a position of compromise, while Danny flirts with the prospect of obsolescence. Danny’s less central role gives Clooney the opportunity to engage in a seductive meta-commentary on his own age and the prospect of retirement, in a bit of understated self-reference that enhances the comedy without weighing down the tone. .
If Soderbergh’s artistic vision in Ocean’s Twelve deliberately departed from the style of Ocean’s Eleven, writer George Nolfi’s portrayal of the characters was a departure necessitated – at least in part – by circumstances. Developing twelve distinct characters would be a considerable challenge for a book series or TV show; it’s a colossal task for a two-hour film. Add to that the fact that the characters had already been established (so continuing to portray them in the same way risks feeling stuffy), and the base set alone included a significant number of A-listers (all with the proven ability to steal scenes from their co-stars), and the challenge of giving everyone lines starts to seem impossible, even without the need for a basic plot.
A heist movie additionally requires a complex plot, with numerous clues throughout, leading to a satisfying triumph. This plot is Ocean’s TwelveThe weakest point of is therefore understandable, although it’s hard to imagine how Nolfi could have done better (unless audiences were prepared to watch a much longer film). Given the circumstances, ditching the intricacies of an elaborate heist plot seems like the right choice, taking nothing away from the film outside of easy genre categorization.
So what is it Ocean’s Twelve by the way, if not a case? Some of the more generous reviewers interpreted it as a self-referential meditation on its own franchise, and perhaps that’s why its legacy has gone unredeemed since its release. Ocean’s Twelve seems to be about nothing more than ego – the self-incriminating egos of the set, the competitive egos of Night Fox, and the compensating egos of Isabelle (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and former antagonist Terry Benedict ( Andy García).
Although Soderbergh denied any intentional self-reference, there is a natural deconstruction suggested by the understated heist plot, which is driven more by unnecessary competition than Benedict’s antagonism. Maybe the robbery plot is pointless — maybe, by extension, a pro-thief heist plot is an unnecessary exercise in fantasy. Audiences may have a hard time accepting the sequels, but they have an even harder time accepting the implication that something they like isn’t good. The defect of Ocean’s Twelvethen, would not be his lack of meaning, but his suggestion that the meaning has been misinterpreted in Ocean’s Eleven.
Fortunately, this theoretical paradigm is not very useful for appreciating what works in Ocean’s Twelve. Like its predecessor, it offers no deeper meaning because it doesn’t need any deeper meaning. Viewers who remain dissatisfied with this proposal might wonder how much that can change in three years. In 2001, when Ocean’s Eleven came out, it arrived in the context of an already popular trend – it’s a distinguished entry in the genre catalog, but not revolutionary.
In 2004, on the other hand, independent cinema gave birth to a new genre of comedy, with the release of Napoleon Dynamite. This film spawned a wave of indie comedies that relied more on absurdism and situation than on diegetic jokes or over-the-top performances. Ocean’s Twelve arrived at the forefront of this movement, channeling its conventions under the guise of a big-budget sequel. Which may disappoint as the sequel to a mainstream blockbuster thrives as a groundbreaking indie, and viewers would be wise to re-evaluate it through that lens…if they re-evaluate it at all.
In a profile for the tenth anniversary of Ocean’s Twelve, Soderbergh proposed that the film could be “one of the highest-budgeted stoner films of all time”. Although the claim is apparently inaccurate, it does point viewers to perhaps the best way to enjoy Ocean’s Twelve: stop thinking about it too much. The film is a work of art, but it’s also meant to entertain, offering engaging scenery and entertaining company. Viewers must reject the expectations generated by Ocean’s Elevenand just be along for the ride.
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