Too cool to rule

Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney reprise their stylish and stylized roles for Ocean's Twelve, which takes their act to Europe.

'Ocean's Twelve' makes this critic long for the substantive Soderbergh of old

Remember the brainy kid in high school who, for a time, became one of the cool kids? Maybe he was doing the quarterback's homework, maybe the prom queen secretly found his nerdiness cute - but there he was, leaving campus with them for lunch, trying to drink beer, upgrading his wardrobe. He was having fun, but secretly he feared he had lost his soul and the misfits he once called friends would never trust him again.

This is what the Steven Soderbergh of Ocean's Twelve looks like to those of us - the four-eyes and brace-faces - who took him to heart when he was making weird, smart little movies like sex, lies, and videotape and The Limey. Ocean's Twelve uses celebrity and beauty like a crutch - one that weakens Soderbergh's filmmaking muscles, turning wit into smugness and style into affectation.

Now, granted, Soderbergh lives in a world that belongs to the Homecoming kings and queens. He's right to think that glamour is a job requirement. But he used to deliver glamour without sacrificing substance. Out of Sight, for instance, glorified two impossibly sexy people but still crackled with intelligence. Twelve, on the other hand, knows that all it has to do to please a certain audience is find an excuse for George Clooney and Brad Pitt to slump together on a sofa, watching reruns and drinking wine. Even this film's predecessor, with its surfeit of marquee names, derived as much of its fun from the inherent thrills of the heist genre as it did from the idolization of ClooneyPittRoberts.

Ocean's Twelve
Dir. Steven Soderbergh; writ. George Nolfi; feat. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould (PG-13)
None of this is to say that Ocean's Twelve isn't often a lot of fun. It is. We visit exotic locations, listen to swingin' '60s tunes, revel in the lunatic gaudiness of Brad Pitt's wardrobe. There are heists - although the first feels a lot like something that was done better in the Italian Job remake, the second has a gaping hole in its logic, and both are motivated by an outside threat that feels completely hollow.

Early on, Matt Damon (whose character wants to be more of a player this time) tags along with Clooney and Pitt to a meet with a mobster. It's a very important meet with a very temperamental man, they say, and Damon shouldn't blow it. But once the conversation starts, everyone at the table speaks in gibberish, deliberately making the new kid feel like an idiot as he tries to keep up. The scene isn't unlike this movie, which hides its deficiencies behind quirky storytelling and smirking delivery, then dares us to be uncool and point out the flaws.

If we're willing to go along, we'll get to hang with Brad and Julia, lounge at a villa on Italy's Lake Como, and sneak into the members-only after-party at the story's end. It's at least as much fun as doing schnapps shots with a cheerleader or taking conciliatory bong hits with the guy who beat you up in third grade. Steven Soderbergh is still one of the world's most talented and daring filmmakers. But here's hoping that the high-wattage party of Ocean's Twelve leaves him with a hangover serious enough to make him - even if just for a while - swear off hanging with the cool kids.

By John DeFore

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