Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: after an eleven-year break, Ocean's Eight revives the finest heist movie franchise in all of cinema. The perfect opportunity to return to, in my very unhumble opinion, the high point of that franchise thus far.

It is the nature of the caper, heist, or con-artist film that, if it's doing its job right at all, it will end in a wild chain of twists and turns and wonderful surprises. So it is with 2004's Ocean's Twelve, and therein hangs a problem for the reviewer: is 14 years enough time to wantonly spoil a movie for which its twists are a huge part of its reason for being? Because I can't really imagine having anything to say about Ocean's Twelve if I'm not going to spoil it. And that is why I'm going to spoil the shit out of it, and if you haven't seen it, I should recommend bailing out. The very enthusiastic star rating is right over there to left.

So anyway, the Julia Roberts scene.

I think there's no question that, love it or hate or have some uncharted third opinion, the first thing about Ocean's Twelve that any opinion needs to grapple with is the sequence, about three-quarters of the way through the movie, in which Tess Ocean (Julia Roberts) is unwillingly forced to pretend she's the celebrity that she looks uncannily like: Oscar-winning superstar Julia Roberts. If you find the movie to be a self-indulgent European vacation for several incredibly rich movie stars, this gag must be maddening, the absolute nadir of a movie that's all about shitty in-jokes and dumb, arbitrary plotting, and I am sorry for you. If you, like me, find Ocean's Twelve to be a merry referendum on movie stardom and sequel-making, this gag is the linchpin of everything. It's the moment when a film that has been one long meta-joke without interruption since its very opening finally, finally tips its hand and says, "okay, so this has all been on purpose, just wanted to make sure you get that". It's not funny because a character named Tess gets flustered that movie star Bruce Willis (Bruce Willis) thinks she's somebody else and talks to her about the quotidian details of their movie star lives; it's funny because Julia Roberts is pretending to be flustered at Bruce Willis, and Julia Roberts is pretending to have a hard time aping Julia Roberts's style of walking and talking, and Julia Roberts is agreeing to pretend that movie stars like Julia Roberts actually deal with their friends' daughters' SpongeBob blankets like any ordinary suburban soccer mom. It is funny, first and above all, because the film - which, being a scripted Hollywood film, is ostensibly meant to provide us with a compelling synthetic reality, one that we'll believe in as though it were our own - stares us down with the ultimate challenge to our suspension of disbelief, a moment that only makes any sense at all because, no matter how much we want to believe that movies are real, we know that they actually aren't. It exaggerates into absurdity that most sacrosanct of Hollywood lies, the Private Life of the Movie Star, stating outright that Julia Roberts is somebody that Julia Roberts has to play, not somebody that she is, and pins us down until we can admit that yep, movies are made-up, the movie industry is made-up, it's all bullshit. Fun bullshit, but bullshit.

In this respect, I think that Ocean's Twelve is the most Soderberghian of all the movie that Steven Soderbergh made in his "one for them" phase - though if any film puts the lie to the idea that Soderbergh was ever making a film strictly for "them", this is the one. It's a sequel to his big fluffy soufflé of a popcorn movie, 2001's Ocean's Eleven, and I suppose in that respect it's clearly been made for economic reasons at a studio's request, but it's every bit as much his follow-up to 2002's Full Frontal, his most thorough breakdown of the filmmaking process and the nature of the movie actor, and to my mind, the key film in understanding pretty much everything he's done in the decade and a half since.

The big difference is that Full Frontal is intentionally ugly and unpleasant and unwatchable, while Ocean's Twelve is an exercise in pure delight. Three years or so after the end of Eleven, the story picks up with that film's villain, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) having been tipped off to the location of the eleven career criminals who stole all that money from his Las Vegas casinos. He visits them, one by one, to issue threats to their safety if they don't pay him back, within interest, in exactly two weeks. Being who they are, Ocean's eleven (a name they all hate) regroup under the leadership of Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) to commit another heist to raise the money they've spent over the years. But an even bigger heist, and more of them, and this is where Twelve starts to play its game: it's as much a parody of an Ocean's Eleven sequel as an example of one. The motivation is literally "we need to do the exact same in order to make even more money that, as is pointed out several times, nobody actually needs". It's purely arbitrary right from the start, and it only gets more and more arbitrary as it goes along. The film's first heist, taking up most of its first half, is for only a fraction of the money they need; the only reason they do it, as explicitly stated in George Nolfi's script, is for the sake of doing something impressive so they can get even more opportunities to do it in the future.

And this is to say nothing of the second, bigger heist, which they do for literally no reason: as we find out in the film's big final reveal, there have been no stakes at any point in the film's second hour - the heist was already completed, and everything we see Ocean and crew do is for the solitary purpose of keeping their new antagonist, François Toulour (Vincent Cassel), distracted. It is a story that flagrantly lies and cheats, in a most unfair and pointless way.

This is, I contend, exactly the film's genius. Everything about Ocean's Twelve is a meta-joke, I've suggested, and I do mean everything. Julia Roberts is a meta-joke (and so is her card in the end credits, a meta-joke within a meta-joke, by ironically reversing the already ironic credit she received in Eleven), and so is the film's acknowledgement that sequels are just dumb, greedy excuses to do the same thing over again with little or no alternation. There's a meta-joke structured around Matt Damon's character, goofily hapless pickpocket Linus Caldwell, who wants to be equal to Danny and Rusty, for no stated reason; the unstated reason is that in between the Ocean's movies, The Bourne Identity made Damon a star as big as (or bigger than!) Clooney and Pitt. And so on and so forth.

The point I'm driving at is that I think the biggest meta-joke at all is on the very act of filmgoing. It's one thing to make the audience confront the fact that movies are made-up. Do that one way, and you get the cynicism of Full Frontal or Soderbergh's 1996 Schizopolis. But Ocean's Twelve is still a popcorn movie for audiences. It's not meant to be an art film; it's meant to be a great deal of mindless fun. What I think the movie is doing is asking us to be mindful about that mindlessness, so to speak. Within the film itself, the only reason the crew does anything is to provide dazzlement for a specific viewer (first the mid-tier gangster, then Toulour); the stakes are not ever "will we win" but "did we do a sufficient job of keeping you guessing". The film strips the act of popcorn movie viewing down to its essentials, taking all of the "meaning" out of what happens to leave behind the bare fact of over-the-top, ingeniously choreographed spectacle. Basically, Ocean's Twelve is a movie that offer nothing but the pleasure of top-notch moviemaking and movie stars being movie stars, and unlike every other movie for which this is true (which is the vast majority of all big-budget movies in Hollywood's history), it deliberately and repeatedly calls attention to this fact. It's basically just a good-feelings machine, moviemaking distilled to pure affect. This could only work if the moviemaking really was that great, and it is: the actors are gorgeous, the European locations are more gorgeous still, and the gliding, chronologically delirious editing that constantly turns the movie into its own greatest hits real is every bit as dazzling as it was in Eleven. Anyone complaining that the film is a trivial lark, the vacation movies of a bunch of gorgeous wealthy people, has accurately identified the film's greatest strength. This is, in a literal way, pure pleasure, with nothing in mind other than to distract and delight, with part of the delight being in the elaborately convoluted path it takes to get there. I get why somebody might find a film so aggressively trivial to be annoying, but this is and always has been one of my very favorite movies of the 2010s.

Reviews in this series
Ocean's Eleven (Soderbergh, 2001)
Ocean's Twelve (Soderbergh, 2004)
Ocean's Thirteen (Soderbergh, 2007)
Ocean's Eight (Ross, 2018)