The Soderbergh Job

Who's the heroine here? Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones in 'Ocean's Twelve'
Warner Bros.

Critics bitch that Ocean's Twelve isn't "about anything," but what is a Mark Rothko painting about? Hello? Itself, maybe? When it comes to crafting big-star, leather-lined, super-cool studio entertainment with lush locations, bonded bourbon, and surprise twists, nobody does it better than Steven Soderbergh--but damned if he'll leave it at that. He already ticked that item off his checklist in the shockingly capable Ocean's Eleven, so no need to redo that--or rather, no need to just redo that. No, his mission this time out is pretty close to that of Danny Ocean and his very un-dirty dozen: steal an impregnably guarded Fabergé egg and beat the world's greatest jewel thief at the same time. Soderbergh's self-made task is this: deliver the goods on an A-list studio caper flick and make a work of genre-melding, freeform dadaist pastiche in the same moment. His movie is Two or Three Things I Know About Her meets The Thomas Crown Affair; it's Bullitt meets Soderbergh's own Schizopolis.

It's an established convention of describing this sort of movie to say that it opens with Eleven's bad guy (Andy Garcia) demanding the money that Oceanites one through eleven lifted from him the first time--and that their attempts to steal from Peter to pay back Paul are the "flimsiest possible pretext" for big stars to horse around and for Soderbergh to make comic hay. But the reason this director gets paid the top dollars is that the story isn't a Cannonball Run-style excuse for winks and high jinks. If there's one lesson about aesthetic theory to learn from the career of Steven Soderbergh, it's this: Sometimes it's not just possible, but downright necessary to lean on avant-garde technique to tell an affecting, straightforward story.

So Twelve offers not one but two climaxes that play like disappointing anticlimaxes--until we realize that an instant replay sequence (a.k.a. Climax No. 3) is on the way, filling in the lacunae we just stumbled into. Soderbergh has a whole canapé platter of oddities to refresh the genre's hoariest elements. A scientist fumes at Brad Pitt's Rusty, "You've no idea what a cliché a sexy female assistant is!"--whereupon his own comely hireling appears out of the woodwork. The old trope of the hardworking cop with a streak of larceny in her heart gets a double jolt of verfremdungseffekt: first when it's revealed, melodramatically, that her father is the world's most notorious cat burglar; then when we see that her father, surreally, is played by Albert Finney--the comically wheedling patriarch of Erin Brockovich.

Soderbergh takes what in the hands of a Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) or a Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) would be diverting fluff at best and creates a jagged and euphoric subset of pop art. His brilliant composer David Holmes synthesizes Serge Gainsbourg's smarmy croon, the psychedelic jazz of Vampyros Lesbos, and the irresistible pulse of Lalo Schiffrin to help lend a convulsive, forward-jogging, late-'60s impasto-type energy to the film. Matter of fact, everything Soderbergh does in this movie seems piped in from the period when the French New Wave's inventions trickled down to American genre movies. Though critics, aware of Soderbergh's connection to Richard Lester (Petulia), have cited the elder auteur as a Twelve influence, the movie has more in common with a cockeyed piece of Mod heist such as Peter Hall's Perfect Tuesday or the jangly Kaleidoscope by Jack Smight. Twelve is Soderbergh's Kill Bill, only more ambitious. Unlike Tarantino, Soderbergh doesn't intend for his movie to be viewed as a pastiche, but as the thing itself; it has to play that way in Dubuque. So his work functions as both a freaky genre excavation (even The Limey didn't bring back this many lost movie memories) and as a fully satisfying tent-pole movie at once.

Pleasure is the name of the game in a movie like this, and here the pleasures are agreeably heady indeed. From the violent but always blended contrasts of Soderbergh's cinematography (under the pseudonym "Peter Andrews")--combining burnished oxblood art lighting with heavy grain, handheld jitters, and frequent smear--to our shock at seeing Pitt's now fully ripened, almost womanly beauty, every shot and every sequence appears to have been designed to impart the maximum amount of bliss in the smallest quantities of space and time. Who else but Soderbergh would take a conventional exposition scene--the layout of a museum where a heist is about to go off--and stage it as a series of static tableaux of a cardboard museum-model--in homage to Last Year at Marienbad, for God's sake? Or stage another I-go-here/you-go-there exposition-fest as a handheld Dogme roller-coaster ride, the image frequently going soft? (Yes, that was Matt Damon, completely out of focus.)

The director seems to have learned a great deal from conceiving a show on Monday and finishing it on Saturday, as he did on HBO's fantastic, prematurely canceled K Street. (Buy the unheralded DVD and be amazed.) Now he can compress visual, narrative, and performance ideas into tinier, more off-the-cuff micro-increments. Like a genetically enhanced version of his hero Mike Nichols, he seems to have an almost telepathic vision of what the audience is thinking--and how to propel himself just a few feet ahead of us. I can scarcely imagine what'll happen when Soderbergh applies this newly pumped-up technique to material that means a lot to him. In the meantime, all we get is this dumb, shallow, unbelievably exhilarating movie called Ocean's Twelve.

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