“Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.”
In a nutshell: It’s swanky without trying, it’s sexy without sexualizing, it’s le hot jazz in a freezer full of cool.
Not-so-secret confession: I love Ocean’s Twelve, more than I do any other film in the series. It came as a great shock when I learned that Ocean’s Thirteen owes its existence to the cast and crew’s mutual hatred of this film. Perhaps because it has been all but abandoned by anyone who ever laid eyes upon it, I’m compelled to take in this bastard film and bestow it the distinct honour of becoming my inaugural film commentary.
The film features an economy of narrative that should be openly copied it’s so effective, instead of being called incoherent, which is the more common accusation levied against the film. Take for instance our first introduction to all the characters. As Garcia’s character (Terry Benedict) goes rounding up the usual suspects the film establishes everything we need to know about these characters, from their wardrobe, to their behaviour and mannerisms, to their living spaces, as well as their relationships (or lack thereof), and even fills in the narrative gaps between the first movie and this one, all within less than a minute of screentime per person.
Another laudable aspect of the film is its sense of scope. Despite filming in multiple countries and with a principal cast of over two dozen of some of the most prolific actors this century, Soderbergh manages it all with a breezy confidence that’s as infectious as it is inspired, as if the film were a host for European sensibilities. Frames freeze, linger, smash zoom, slow zoom, and tracking shots are handheld but never steadicam, as though the Nouvelle Vague had washed over Soderbergh’s cinematic techniques. All of his craft is used to brilliant effect to make the film also seem like a product of its characters instead of the characters seeming like a product of the film. It’s almost as if Ocean’s crew have hijacked the movie and are calling all the shots, giving credence to one of the biggest criticisms lobbed against the film, even by the director himself—that it’s just too damn complicated. Of course it is! Not only is the plan a product of characters so comfortable in their elaborate world of thiefdom that they can carry on entire conversations in gibberish, each shot and scene is an elaborate heist on our senses and sensibilities.
We don’t even see a single crime play out chronologically. Maybe Soderbergh went a little overboard with his homage to the pioneering cuts of Roeg and other auteurs from the 1970s, but the twisting narrative nevertheless suits the style of the film.
Take for instance during a flashback of the time Pitt’s character (Rusty) spent with Zeta Jones’ (Isabel), in which we are treated to yet another flashback to the day before (that’s right, a flashback within a flashback—Nolan eat your heart out). Time, memory, life and history in all its stupid complexity as the mind remembers it has never been so faithfully rendered on film. The scene jumps back and forth as it suits the recollection of the characters.
The aftermath of the Amsterdam heist is the zenith of this technique, however. Through skillful editing, we learn in under three minutes how Rusty and Isabel met (from her perspective), how the job went down (from Rusty’s), that the Night Fox got there first (cluing the audience in to just how good this thief is from the gang’s perspective) and how the Night Fox and Benedict first met and sent the plot in motion (from Benedict’s perspective). In three minutes.
The film functions like a magic trick on some potent psychedelic drugs (perhaps explaining the opening logo a bit better), or at least the final heist certainly does, full of misdirection, grand standing and culminating in a stunning and unexpected payoff. But unlike a magic trick, Soderbergh isn’t afraid to pull back the curtain and show you the smoke and mirrors. It functions as a pseudo nuit Americain, a view of reality pitched just a few degrees from normal. After all, nowhere is as perfectly lit, as suffused with colour, as sumptuous to behold as is every locale in this colour-timed movie, from the high-contrast cobblestone streets of a half remembered Rome that exists only in the movies (sans McDonald’s across from the Parthenon in the most obvious example) to the emerald green wash of the murky waters beneath Amsterdam. Life has never looked so artistic. Everything is, perhaps not so ironically, over-exposed. Perhaps this too is a not so subtle statement of the North American perception of Europe: an artistic wünderland of beautiful women, equally beautiful sights, and everything glossed over in the faintest veneer of cultural exoticism; where life is almost just like what they presume is real, but nestled just beyond the familiar on the precipice of the uncanny valley.
It’s unusual that for a film studded with the hottest stars in the world at the time, and directed by a man whose first film was the sexually charged Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and who would go on to direct the erotic Full Frontal, that this film should be devoid of any hint of sexuality—at least in the conventional sense. The film is instead an almost voyeuristic document of scopophilic criminals, who revel in the paradoxical relationship between fame and anonymity. Rather than relying on women to get their kicks, these men get their pleasure instead from paradoxically going unnoticed while still being seen (if only for their exploits). Take for example the key adversary in the film, the Night Fox, who’s in the game for the fame. He doesn’t care about the money (though that doesn’t hurt), he’s in it for the renown. The whole plot is set in motion because his fame is eclipsed, if only for an instant, by the success of Danny’s actions from the first film (ironically also a success that spawned a wave of cinematic imitators to this day; Now You See Me most recent among them). Incredibly, for all the dreary baggage it should entail, the reflection on celebrity culture is not only entertaining, it offers a subtle and nuanced reflection on the inner psychosis of celebrity, ironically through a gleefully voyeuristic romp through the criminal underworld as only Soderbergh could provide.
Indeed, the film opens with Brad Pitt entering his apartment framed inside a magnifying glass while the camera (positioned at the far end of the room) zooms out. The image seems a calculated metonym for the movie as a whole, both on the screen and off, as an examination of celebrity culture. In another example, the first person his character interacts with other than Catherine Zeta-Jones is none other than Topher Grace in a reprise cameo from the first film as himself, or rather a hyperbolic version of himself, in a trashed hotel room (the stereotypical stage for such actors in that decade), complaining about the state of his career.
Or how about the fact that Zeta-Jones’ method for catching these thieves is so Method in its approach that Stanislovski would’ve blushed. Learn to think like them, she tells her fellow agents at a conference, to live and breathe like them. In short, her tactic is to assume their identities. We’ve seen a subtle visual reference to this tactic with the opening studio logo, which slides through a swath of colours, just like the myriad of personas an actor will slip through from film to film. This film revels in this multiplicity of identities, where an identity can be constructed as simply as changing a name. Or where something as simple as an outfit can create a convincing illusion of a new identity (such as the traveling outfits of the London Football team Arsenal FC the crew adopt to travel incognito). Or take Zeta-Jones’ role for all it entails: an actress (Zeta-Jones) playing a police officer (Isabel) playing a character actor.
Zeta-Jones isn’t the only one in the cast who assumes multiple identities. In a meta-diegetic romp that turned many viewers off for its certifiable wackiness, the gang is able to use Tess Ocean’s similarity to Julia Roberts to get them close enough to their prize to snatch it (leading to that absurdly wacky moment in the end credits when Tess Ocean is introduced as Julia Roberts). Here Soderbergh merges the discussion between scopophilic thieves and voyeuristic public, for as Damon’s character explains, “[Tess] can get near the egg during daylight hours, with at least half the system shut down” because “[she’s] like an image to these people, [she’s] like an object”. It’s no small wonder then that they use a holographic projection of their item in the heist, thereby reiterating the issue of projection and persona discussed throughout the film. Or how about when Tess is on the phone with her celebrity doppelganger, in reality herself, the multiplicity of identities collapse in that moment, as Tess herself does for real. Her feint, the fake faint, allows Damon’s character to swap out the real prize for a holographic double in the ensuing panic. But of course it’s not for real. Everything in that scene was an illusion, because as we find out by the end even the heist was a performance designed to trick the Night Fox into believing that the egg on display was the real egg. But that egg was as fake as the holographic projection, as fake as Tess’s southern accent as she pretends to be Julia Roberts, or the baby she pretends to carry instead of a pillow (nevermind that she really was pregnant, otherwise your brain might melt), as fake as the whole scripted scene Soderbergh has just staged and presented for us—an illusion within an illusion ad infinitum like some cinematic matrioshka doll, all reflecting an image of some truth like in an elaborate magic act. Smoke and mirrors abound.
The golden Faberge egg, their ultimate prize, is more than a winking reference to the Oscar trophy. And the film provides its most blatant clue when Damon’s character, pretending to be Julia Roberts’ publicist explains to an actor that Julia’s looking to come strong off “this whole baby thing, because after a while that statue starts smirking at you, know what I’m saying?” The actor, Bruce Willis for those keeping track at home, does not know what Damon’s character is saying, because Willis has never even been nominated. The real joke here is that Willis is surrounded by Oscar winners: Damon, Soderbergh and Roberts (who won for her role in Soderbergh’s Erin Brokovich). In a wonderful reversal on the status quo, Willis is kept at a distance on both the diegetic level (since he’s not “in” on the heist) and on the meta level (because he can’t even begin to fathom what it’s like to even be nominated). And here’s the real fun of the movie: in a rare moment of comraderie that only cinema can provide we get to enjoy a unique instance of double irony, because not only do we get to laugh at the meta level, but we get to laugh because we’re on the inside with these characters, we’re in on the job. We get to feel included in their repartee, their painfully insouciant banter, we have a rapport with these gents, we can sympathize (or, to paraphrase a scene early scene in the film, can we empathize?). It’s like one big party and we the audience are invited to come along (hence the party ending), provided we don’t fight against the exoticism and just go with it all. Just live the experience and let the nonsense flow. Like the dance break-in of the finale—utter nonsense—but damn if it’s not fun.
And about that scene between Pitt, Clooney and Coltrane talking nonsense–or rather, lyrics lifted from a Led Zeppelin song–the conversation and Damon’s befuddlement more broadly reflect the unique style of the film itself. Just as the players in the conversation mirror the audience who are in on the joke, the conversation—self-consciously smug, with its dense script and self-aware style—is just like the film. And just like Damon’s inability to comprehend their incoherent nonsense is much to his chagrin and our humorous benefit, you either accept the nonsense or you miss the joke. “When I was four I watched my mother kill a spider with a tea cozy. Years later I realized it was not a spider, it was my uncle Harold,” spouts Coltrane in a fit of non-logic. Damon’s character tries to reply, but fails in his response precisely because it’s too logical, too structured for their Dadaist nonsense. He gives them bastardized pseudo poetry, and even though they spoke nonsense, it was defined by its no sense, to the extent that the lack of sense was a sort of primer to make sense. And since it’s obvious that the boys are simply playing with him, the film’s esprit shines brightest: it’s willing to give you five minutes of nonsense, if only to let you be in the room with these people. It’s for scenes like this that the film is consummately fun from beginning to end.
The final scene of the film, the after party, might as well have been the wrap party on the film itself. All the personas are thrown away, the illusion and trickery left at the door, and all that remains are people enjoying that joie de vivre that we too can experience for the price of admission by committing to the film. They present you this wonderful projection of a golden Faberge egg for your viewing pleasure, you know it’s not real, that it all amounts to glit-glam pomp, but why should it matter since they’ve invited you to participate? If cinema is meant to duplicate an experience, this film is synesthesia.
In keeping with the tone of the film, the final shot of the film is a freeze frame on Isabel’s jubilant face, for now order has given over to revelry and nonsense. Of all the faces to end on, her’s makes the most sense, for up until the final act she represented law and order. Ironically, in this film such qualities render her the femme fatale in an unusual twist on one of the archetypal roles of women in film. She represents law and order rather than death and mayhem. She’s still as deadly as Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, to be sure, but in this world askew the film presents, she represents structure, order and logic—everything this film so self-consciously rebels against. And so with that final shot, the sad face made happy, the agent of the law made into an agent of lawlessness, the wheel of fate spins in its endless revolutions and topsy-turveydome reigns supreme. But it is not ‘antisense’, it does not combat our notions of structure and unity, rather asks us to suspend them for a while to allow the palpable experience of cinema to take effect.
Another is that great bit of business when Clooney’s character wanders from person to person in the gang, asking them to guess his age. The desperation is heavy in his voice as he responds to a rather callous reply from Casey Affleck’s character. “Do I look fifty?” We don’t for a second doubt it’s Clooney asking the audience if they still buy him as a leading man, and in his desperation we get a whiff of Clooney the actor in a rare moment of trepidation. It’s perhaps the question any leading man must ask himself, because odds are his public already asked it five years before. In an instant, inside joke becomes a remarkable statement about celebrity culture.
On the subject of that Amsterdam job they discuss so nonsensically, it’s perhaps no coincidence that the mark is agoraphobic, because as Damon’s character points out when the group begin to tease the man for his mental illness, would people consider Emily Dickinson a freak? While the agoraphobic in this film is not an artist (that might have been too perfect), the connection nevertheless reminds its audience the suffering that great artists endure to make them great. Or, even more interesting, suggests that perhaps they are great because they can’t deal with ordinary people. How many times have actors spoken of their desire to simply get away from the limelight. Hell, Marlon Brando bought Pitcairn Island just for that reason, and I read Johnny Depp’s island isn’t too shabby either.
That Soderbergh and Clooney felt compelled to make Ocean’s Thirteen because they “didn’t want to go out getting socked in the chin on one”, as Clooney tells it, is a frank acknowledgement of their work’s failings, and a heavy dose of humility most critics wish this film had presented. But really, why should a film pander to an audience? Just as the film is about sophisticated criminals doing needlessly complicated jobs just because they can, this film is sophisticated people doing needlessly complicated cinema just because they can. This is a film where the entire plot is a MacGuffin—the twist at the end throws the whole thing out. And what was this plot-as-paradoxical-plot-device used in service of? An excuse to capture the beauty and majesty of these people, in these locales, at that time, and to have fun while doing it. Now, if it only did that it would be The Thomas Crown Affair (the original, not the equally enjoyable remake), but like all true MacGuffin’s, this film is a launching pad for a much greater discussion about who we are and what we value as North Americans (as nonsensical and backward as it may be) refracted through a European lens. The fact that the fun is so infectious, that it bleeds through every shot stronger than the wash of colour suffusing every frame is all the more reason to rescue this film from the category of ‘mediocrity’ it has long been languishing within.
Le Samourai (1967)
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
The Italian Job (1969)
Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
The Sting (1973)
Will Pair Nicely With:
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
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