Published on May 4th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Oceans 12 – A Reconsideration
Noah digs deeply into his soul to figure out why he loves Oceans 12 so much, while also examining how we watch (and rewatch) films.
What’s the logic that goes into rewatching a film? Maybe its been so long, you simply forget it. Maybe it’s a favourite, a quote machine, junk food cinema. Easy on the eyes. Maybe the movie finds you; you’re flipping channels and it happens to be on, so you say you’ll watch it for five minutes and next thing you know, you’ve watched the entire thing. Whatever your reasons may be, one aspect of the experience almost always permeates your perception. The awareness that you know it, you remember it, or that, at the very least, you’ve had the experience of remembering it. You’ve taken its punches; you’ve seen the Ace up its sleeve, even if you end up getting played all over again. And that changes the very fabric of the film, stylizes it as something smooth going down. Something that eases your expectations.
However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be smart or sophisticated. Rather, the sophistication is mellowed out, it marches to the beat of your drum. I’ll posit that, when done right, that breed of film is quite resonant. So when I say that Ocean’s Twelve is the more rewatchable film of all time, its not just because the plot seems clearer or the charisma comes more into focus. It’s because it has a life of its own, one that grows, transforms, lets you evolve around it while still nurturing its vision. You never quite see the same movie twice. It might be the only Hollywood film that I can think of that was made to be rewatched. The only film in which you haven’t really seen it until you rewatch it.
Let’s go back to Ocean’s Eleven for a second. It comes out on December 7th, 2001 and goes on to make 450 million dollars. It’s got the star power. It’s got the swagger. It’s a quintessential Hollywood flex, a Dream Team excursion that hems its unignorable celebrity factor into the very fabric of the film. Danny Ocean is George Clooney, and we all know it. Brad Pitt is Rusty and Rusty is Brad Pitt. That’s why it works so well—because even though it pulls some clever twists, even though the odds are against them, even though it toes the party line in terms of the heist genre, ultimately the stakes are relatively low. You don’t watch it to see if the gang pulls off the heist. You’d be a dolt to not expect as much. You watch the film because you want to see Pitt, Clooney, Damon—hell, maybe even Carl Reiner if you’re old enough—pull it off. You want to see how cool “cool” can actually be, and whether or not the film can sustain that for two hours. The secret of its success is not really that obscure; it knows itself so well, it feeds off its slick sense of momentum. It’s so blatantly cool that it makes it look effortless, which is about the coolest thing you can do.
I don’t think anybody was clamoring for a sequel to Ocean’s Eleven. Director Steven Soderbergh gloats on Twelve’s audio commentary that “…the studio didn’t push for it; the actors didn’t push for it.” He legitimately had something more to do with this series, and it wasn’t just a desire to his own cinematography on a weird kind of screwball comedy-French New Wave hybrid. He still had some cool left in the tank. And what resulted can really only be described as post-cool; a moment where cool took a left turn and made itself–the very effortless coolness of the first installment–not only the subject, but the butt of the joke.
That’s right, Ocean’s Twelve is a comedy first and foremost, and all its heist/caper semantics are just set dressing. It does the only thing a cool franchise could do in a post-cool world of its own creation. It lampoons coolness until that very cheekiness catches on like a virus. That maybe doesn’t come across on the initial viewing, when everything about the film suggests a relatively straightforward heist flick with a couple twists that tesselate from confusing to stale. But on rewatch, the film becomes a screwball masterpiece, a Hollywood sized in-joke, a film in which the knowledge that the entire plot is so delightfully pointless pivots your perception to the important things. It demands that the viewer see right through it, and that can’t happen when you’re simply chasing its convoluted plot for the first time.
This time around, Danny and the gang are the ones getting played. Terry Benedict cycles through each member of the illustrious ‘Eleven’ behind designer sunglasses and an affective cane that he twirls around like a Batman villain. Soderbergh shoots them all in single shots, stitching together a sequence that is utterly predictable, yet so entertaining precisely because of how unexpectedly expected it all is. It reveals what makes the whole series so charismatic; the fact that it carries such a swagger within a telegraphed framework. It shows its confidence. The setup is that they have two weeks to pay Benedict back with interest. And in a kind of Altman-esque scene of everyone talking over everyone (another little fuck-you to convention that the movie touts), Danny just kind of instructs them that they’re all going to Europe. He lies about having a job in mind just to keep spirits up. Another bit of slickness early on; the genius thief is out of ideas and just has to go through the motions. Kind of like the film overall—an embodiment of the misguided approach to every unnecessary sequel. And they play it so obvious it can’t not be intentional.
Again, all this winking and mustache-twirling only comes through when you’re not bootstrapped to the plot, the beautiful ingenue that preserves the trick. On first watch, its impossible not to be wrapped up in this thick wool blanket of hope that Danny’s going to figure it out, and that its just a matter of how. When you watch it again, its hysterically obvious how doomed Danny is. So it then makes it ten times more impressive to know that his doom is his success and that the film has essentially rendered the entire point of thieving null and void. Any good sequel flips its conceit on its head; but Ocean’s Twelve tosses everything you know about conceit, about convention, about genre in the trash.
What remains is pure iconography without a logic driving it—a playground for Soderbergh and co. to flash their hand and then bluff anyway. Hollywood falling upwards into postmodern pastiche through the privileged ennui of the star system. Every shot, every line reading, every movie star is so endearing because Soderbergh seems to understand precisely how fortunate a position he is in to vandalize the art of taking yourself seriously. He knows his toys are most fun to play with when they can embrace the phoniness of self-impersonation and still remain irresistible.
“We had to comment on the fact that there are more stars in this than any other movie.” That’s what screenwriter George Nolfi has to say for himself re: the infamous Julia Roberts-playing-Julia Roberts meta flex. He phrases it as if the choice was not a choice at all but rather an inevitability. Take a franchise with this amount of star-power and incrementally increase the number of winks at the audience, and next thing you know, you’re having Tess play, “that actress that she looks so much like.” Not only does this scene give Roberts the most agency in her entire run in the series, but it also signifies the conundrum of sequels—ideally, you make them because the audience wants to see the characters again, yet that audience won’t go see anything unless it has enough celebrity window-dressing to justify the price of admission. If you’re Roberts or Clooney or whoever, you’re simultaneously leaning into the artifice of character but also playing yourself.
Ocean’s Twelve’s climax nods at that very paradox, having Tess pretend to be Julia Roberts in order to create a cover for the remaining gang’s last-ditch attempt to get into the museum that houses the coveted Faberge eggs. Of course, Bruce Willis (as himself, of course) shows up as the foil to this plan, but it doesn’t matter anyway. It’s all a rouse to convince the devilish Night Fox he’s won. Even the film’s audacity is rendered utterly pointless—an empty spectacle within an empty spectacle. The two seem to cancel each other out, formulating a convincing bout of self reflexivity.
On top of all the calculated sloppiness, the film is just damn endearing. It works on a more earnest level as a sort of eleven-man buddy film. Linus eggs the others on about wanting a bigger role in the group as Damon really doubles down on his character’s clumsy people-skills. Rusty and Danny have some especially great moments of levity, like when Rusty attempt to have a serious conversation about his ex-lover and Danny just ditches him. Later, The Night Fox pranks Rusty into waking up 6 hours ahead of schedule “the day of.” Rusty just ends up drinking wine with Danny as the two watch a German-dub of Happy Days. “That guy who plays Potsy is amazing,” Danny mumbles, soused and drowsy, the day before the big job. The film understands that you pay to see a certain charm, that certain je ne sais quoi that only A-listers can muster.
Ocean’s Twelve feels so successful through those moments precisely because on rewatch one can’t help but notice how, contrary to conventional logic, it takes time to emphasize them. Its breeziness helps along the kind of quintessential humor one can expect to find in a conventional caper. Yet, it’s resistance to convention breeds a calmness that elevates the kind of humor that can and usually does veer into hackneyed territory with this particular sub-genre.
It’s a very stubborn film. Most audiences left it feeling dissatisfied despite how loose it plays it. I think that’s entirely reasonable. I fell in love with it precisely because I was too young to see it when it came out. I watched on DVD, and I pause, rewind, re-watch. I think there is something about how you fall in love with a movie that’s rooted in how you discover it. For me, it wasn’t just the fact of not getting to experience it as a kooky whirlwind in the theatre. It was the fact that it was always available, always beckoning me to revisit it. I never truly appreciated it until I had rewatched Eleven so much, I got bored with it. And that boredom spurned a deep affection for every way its sequel flips the script yet somehow doubles down on its most definitive features. To be familiar with it is to love it.
But that’s what is great about loving movies; it’s often rooted in a different set of criteria that The Greatest Films of All Time meet. There’s a reason I’ve rewatched Ocean’s Twelve more times than The Godfather. It’s hardly a debate over which is the better movie. But the question should be rephrased; it’s not a matter of the better movie, it’s a matter of which movie gets the better of you. Which movie reaches out and touches you? Which movie gives you that eureka moment, that feeling where everything just clicks, where every decision, good or bad, just makes sense? Perhaps only through the context of being a viewer who already knowing where its going. So if you get anything out of this diatribe on Ocean’s Twelve, other than that you should definitely give it another shot, its that there’s movies you love and then there’s movies you should love, the ones you are supposed to appreciate on an intellectual level. Those are great, and I enjoy the hell out of them as well. But nothing beats that movie that just gets you, that gem that feels like it exists only for you in that moment. Ocean’s Twelve is that movie for me because it is just as jaded as I am. We’re kindred spirits. We have our own inside jokes that no one else understands.