Sometimes I really wonder what goes on in Steven Soderbergh’s mind. The prolific director (and prolific retirer) is famous in Hollywood for being unstoppably idiosyncratic, and many of his film choices read like a long list of ADHD symptoms. You can almost hear him saying: “I want to do a movie with Channing Tatum! And strippers! And then one about Liberace! Why has no one tried to remake Casablanca with Tobey Maguire? I want to do that!” Often, this really works for Steven Soderbergh, and the amount of classics he has in his catalogue as a producer, writer and director is astounding: Ocean’s Eleven, Syriana, Michael Clayton, Good Night and Good Luck, Far From Heaven, Pleasantville, Traffic, Out of Sight, The Limey, and (my personal favorite) sex, lies and videotape all came from his mind.
However, when a Steven Soderbergh film goes wrong, it goes off the rails spectacularly, like the nearly unwatchable 2005 snoozefest Bubble, a movie that even still had its defenders. Roger Ebert gave it four stars and put it on his Top Ten List, whereas I blame that film for my receding hairline. The odd thing about Soderbergh films is that no matter how bad the film was perceived to be, you always will find someone who loved it, someone who knew exactly what Soderbergh was trying to get at. And I share Ebert’s pain. I get it. I really like Erin Brockovich, still, and am one of the few people who truly loved Ocean’s Twelve. I think I might be the only person left who even liked it. In the screening of folks I saw it with back in 2004, everyone I saw it with was viscerally angry. They felt like the con wasn’t in the film. The con was on them. For me, I knew that I had just sat on a big cinematic whoopee cushion, but after the movie, it was like I looked under my butt, saw its remains and said: “Ah, Soderbergh, I see what you did there.”
Pardon me for invoking the word “meta,” but Ocean’s Twelve’s meta-trickery was precisely the reason I enjoyed it; I think it’s one of his most fascinating cinematic experiments. Steven Soderbergh regularly pulls a George Clooney in that he will make a movie in the studio system to fund what he really wants to do—like the time James Cameron agreed to make Titanic only if the studio funded a trip down to the wreckage. He didn’t want to build a new Titanic, he only wanted to pay his respects to the old one. And with Soderbergh, you can tell that his real interest in Ocean’s Twelve is bankrolling whatever his next projects would be—which sadly turned out to be two of his noblest and biggest failures, Bubble and The Good German. But rather than pulling an Adam Sandler and giving the studio a joyless ride clearly just designed to make money, Soderbergh made a film that is uniquely mischievous and almost weirdly transparent about its intentions. Soderbergh knows that he has just been given a blank check for a $100 million sequel no one really wanted—including him—and like his dirty dozen thieves, Soderbergh is going to spend every single dollar. And show it to us.
Thus, the movie almost becomes about its glitz and glamour—part of it takes place at Lake Como, fergodsakes—and the result is like a broadcast of the Golden Globes. A lot of people find it inferior to the Academy Awards (aka. Ocean’s Eleven), and that’s why it’s better. They care less about being “respectable” than getting drunk as hell in their ludicrously overpriced suits and enjoying the hell out of it; they are just there to have fun and be the most self-aware 1%ers in existence. Similarly, the cast only seems here to get paid to goof around, but the movie is, once again, very honest about that. How else would you explain the fact the heist team spends a great deal of the film in a jail cell? Or that they lift up a house? Or that they have Julia Roberts play Julia Roberts during a heist only so they can throw in a deliciously awkward Bruce Willis cameo?
In my theatre, almost everyone hated the Julia-Roberts-playing-Julia-Roberts bit, but I thought it was clever in that very Steven Soderbergh way. We might have known it was coming, and some claimed to, but the payoff was enjoyable in that this scene wasn’t about what we expected it to be. It acts as a secret double commentary on the perils of being as famous as Julia Roberts is: you can only really play yourself. Even when you are playing someone else, the audience expects you are playing yourself—unless you are Meryl Streep. It’s why so many people hate Kristen Stewart and Lena Dunham. They can’t separate the two. And Julia Roberts is almost the worst-case scenario of that. Every movie she’s in is always about how beautiful, perfect and famous she is. In Eat, Pray, Love, we had to watch her eat pizza for two-and-a-half hours, because it’s apparently a treat to watch one of the most famous people in the world eat. The problem isn’t that her movies ask us to love her (which is common in Hollywood); it’s that they assume we already do.
That’s the very interesting thing about Ocean’s Twelve: it knows we already love these people, and that’s why we came. Soderbergh’s film examines how that very level of stardom shapes our cinematic expectations. Most people view movie watching in the same way they view going to a high-school play: all you want to do is see something a bunch of people you like are in. You want to hang out with your friends, even if they aren’t doing anything; it’s the reason people are so often logged onto Facebook for no reason. Ocean’s Twelve is that exact thing and nothing more. They brought the famous people together. Look, there’s Matt Damon! And Don Cheadle! And there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones! She just won an Oscar! What more did you want?
And to not like that—to see why the movie may have met your expectations but left you unsatisfied—requires that we reflect on Hollywood and a system almost unilaterally invested in stars. It requires we see Julia Roberts as a reflection of ourselves, which the movie all but spells out. So, Steven Soderbergh may be conning us, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t in on the joke.