The pilot light of "Ocean's Twelve" is so low a whisper could blow it out, leaving nothing on-screen except a series of outtakes bereft of coherence, much less drama.
By the end, though, the frail, flickery thing that's up there more or less clings to life, mostly on goodwill and the kindness of strangers. It's not really about heists, and still less does it concern itself with "Ocean's Eleven," its much better, much more disciplined predecessor. It could be argued that it's truer in ad hoc spirit to the old rat-pack flicks of hepcats Dino and Frank and Sammy and Joey than was "Eleven," but I'm not sure that's a good thing. It's really about hanging out, and how cool it is to be a movie star, about the good fun that rich, handsome, famous people have.
Back in black: George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Bernie Mac embark on one of many elaborate heists in the lazy sequel to 2001's "Ocean's Eleven."
(Ralph Nelson -- Warner Bros.)
The problems begin with structure, or rather the refusal of the film to invent one. The 2001 predecessor -- with George, Brad, Matt, this generation of hepcats -- at least had the organizing principle of a single job to hold it together and a believable motive behind each major participant. It studied process and was built on cause and effect: Let's rob a casino to get back at gangster creep Terry Benedict. We first do this, then we do that, we get closer and closer, but we always have one goal, and that goal keeps everything neatly lined up. Within that structure, we can improvise brilliantly, as the director Steven Soderbergh did, playing nifty games with chronology, working a dozen variations on the old now-you-see-it, now-you-don't gag.
"Ocean's Twelve" seems to be a now-you-see-it, now-you-still-see-it movie.
No one has thought much about story at all; instead, the movie reinvents itself about every 25 minutes, finding a new minor plot obstacle to overcome and depositing the characters into boredom and lassitude until someone can come up with another plot obstacle. Quite late into it, the movie is still introducing new characters in search of hairpin turns and unsupportable, arbitrary revelations.
Of the latter, the daffiest is a bit where Danny Ocean's wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), pretends to be Julia Roberts as part of a scam, even to the point where she's fooling the real Bruce Willis in a substantial, unbilled appearance. But if Tess looks like Julia, why doesn't Rusty (Brad Pitt) look like Brad Pitt and Danny Ocean (George Clooney) look like George Clooney with attendant consequences?
That illogicality should faze nobody, and Soderbergh means it only to express the loopy, larky casualness of the enterprise; I mention it to evoke the general laziness of the film and point out that its rewards aren't dramatic but mildly comical. The movie proceeds from the idea that the victim of the Bellagio casino heist of the first film, Benedict (Andy Garcia), has found each of the 11 miscreants and, rather than killing them, as would be his wont, instead insists that they pay him back. And, rather than resist him, as would be their wont, they agree. You may not buy this -- I didn't -- but the breeziness with which Soderbergh pulls it off is completely charming and it makes you more receptive to the genial chaos that follows.
Of course another problem is that 11 is a hard number to manage and 12 -- with the addition, eventually, of Catherine Zeta-Jones -- is even harder. There are too many characters and not enough story. So the minor players don't resonate at all; even the great character actor Don Cheadle is short-shrifted of screen time, and low-rankers Casey Affleck and Scott Caan hardly register.
That leaves the glamour boys -- Pitt, Clooney, Matt Damon -- to shamble through what remains of the several plots. The first involves heisting the world's first stock certificate from the posh townhouse of an eccentric Amsterdam collector, even though the guys know the deal will yield only about $2.5 million and they need over a hundred million and they need it in two weeks. We watch them fiddle with elaborate plans, which all seem to founder on the problem that a window through which they need to shoot a crossbow bolt (to disconnect an alarm box) is inaccessible, being too low.
So they decide to raise the house, and the movie cuts next to an elaborate underwater construction set where hydraulic jacks -- which must cost thousands and thousands of dollars and had to be special-ordered -- are magically in place to boost the building to the required height. All right, that's a movie trick: the presumption that high-end, well-dressed, ironic playboy thieves can put their hands on highly specialized, extremely expensive equipment in a few hours, any place in the world, even when they don't speak the language. It's passable; you just wish they'd worked a little harder.
The first complication is an Interpol cop, played by Zeta-Jones. She's the sort of cop you find only in movies, of course: beautiful, sophisticated, suave, but secretly a master-thief groupie just waiting to be turned to the dark side by a pretty smile such as the one on Brad Pitt's face. (Zeta-Jones, as a newcomer to this franchise, clearly doesn't get it: She's the only one who actually bothers to act.)
Complication No. 2 arrives when the gang, which came up short in the townhouse job, realizes that an even more master master thief calling himself the Night Fox got there first and stole the document as a challenge. So the true topic of "Ocean's Twelve" turns out to be a kind of burglar's Olympics, in which the Night Fox (played by Frenchman Vincent Cassel), working alone, attempts to out-steal Ocean and his gang of thieves. Again, much less compelling than one heist played for real.
The final steal-off involves a scam meant to denude a Roman museum of a gloriously vulgar Faberge egg that looks like it was watched over by Horton in Dr. Seuss's famous tree. This is the part in which Roberts appears as someone imitating Julia Roberts, and even if she's a good sport, it still feels ridiculous. It all ends on one of those infuriatingly sloppy notes where, having dramatized narrative events WXYZ for us, which we have taken on good faith, it suddenly and arbitrarily delivers narrative events STUV, which completely invalidate events WXYZ. That's not cleverness, it's subterfuge.
So what the movie is selling is the good fellowship among these A-list players. I suppose it's like being invited to a party at producer Jerry Weintraub's Palm Springs mansion. Pitt and Clooney spend most of their time together and they've developed a low-key Bob 'n' Bing sense of timing; it's enjoyable enough but hardly worth eight bucks. Meanwhile, Damon splits off from them and is more or less in command of a smaller unit of second-raters, including the briefly seen Elliott Gould, the acrobatic Shaobo Qin, Affleck and Caan and, even briefer still, Carl Reiner. Bernie Mac has almost nothing to do with any of this, and there's yet another guy who has a few good lines but was unrecognizable to me. I think his name was Eddie Jemisen. He seems like a nice young man.
The whole thing is a piffle of fluff or a fluff of piffle. About halfway through you'll get an incredible hunger to see a movie.
Ocean's Twelve (120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo and adult themes.