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Breaking the fifth wall
A film review of OCEAN'S 12 by Camus

A confession up front.

I like caper movies, good or bad. There's some inherent 'caper movie DNA' that I either possess or happily succumb to. Whether it's the labyrinthine plots, the ingenious solutions to brow-knottingly difficult problems or the well crafted satisfying ending that sends you out into the world with a little spring in your step, I'm game. Yes, you've forgotten most of it by the time your handbrake's off but that's what’s also satisfying - you can line up for DVD seconds a few months to a year down the line and still be mildly entertained because most of it leaked out of your head minutes after you'd seen it.

Ocean's 11, (a gorgeous title. Aesthetically, it just feels right) was originally a 60s Brat Pack vehicle. Some say, perhaps uncharitably, it was less of a heist caper and more of an excuse for several über-famous soon-to-be-pop-culture-icons to co-ordinate their drinking time in Las Vegas. In 1998, the Sex, Lies and Videotape independent movie making hero, director Steven Soderbergh, made a rather strong man-on-the-run thriller called Out of Sight. The man was George Clooney. Why Ms. Lopez does not continue with this level of work amazes me. It seems as if being a pop star has eroded her credibility as a dramatic actress. So Soderbergh and Clooney decided that they were good for each other and set up their own company, Section Eight Ltd.

Their Ocean's 11 was a cinematic treatise in 'the light touch'. Pitt and Clooney made a startlingly good double act, effortlessly in tune with each other and that's rare. It's either amazing chemistry evident in a happy accident or work of the highest calibre - either way it's a joy to watch. The sneering Andy Garcia played the effective foil and everyone went home happy (except Mr. Garcia). Soderbergh’s modern, camera moving, jump-cut, garishly graded style was emerging and, in the sequel, we expected to be in for a very similar ride.

Ocean's 12 (and there are many candidates for who is actually the twelfth in the gang) didn't disappoint. It delivered almost exactly the same sense of audience satisfaction with an added bonus, something strangely lacking in the first movie - a romantic interest for Rusty Ryan. You can't have Brad Pitt oozing sexual confidence and effortless cool all over the place and no woman to spar with. Clooney already has Julia Roberts. His movie star hierarchy can't go any higher arkey than that. Pitt's sparring partner is to be congratulated, look you. No, she's not the first woman detective on screen, nor the first detective set in Amsterdam. To my knowledge (scant and selective it may be) she's the first ever Welsh detective on screen. Shout it from the rooftops. The extraordinarily talented Cathy Jones (you can see why she added the 'erine' and the 'Zeta') can put on any accent (see Chicago for a bravura performance) but she elected or someone elected to keep her own and it really suits her and the character. It's different and different in a sequel is to be applauded.

Each of the cast does sterling work (it really takes a lot to make things look so unrehearsed) and Clooney's dead pan and obvious disappointment at everyone believing him to be closer to 50 in age was a joy. Everyone's back for the sequel and fresh from his Bourne contract, Matt Damon still reminds us how gawky and un-worldly he can be if he tries. Cameos abound (who'd not want to be part of this globetrotting star studded enterprise?). Eddie Izzard, still not convincing me that he can cut it as a fully fledged character actor, pops up as a holographic artist. Robbie Coltrane does his Cracker hard man routine unnerving Damon in the process, the cinematic equivalent to expecting an American to understand and appreciate the game 'Mornington Crescent'. It's a culture thing.

The plot? Walking stick toting Garcia wants his money back with interest or all Danny's eleven are dead and there aren’t enough jobs going for thieving gangs to make up what’s needed to keep the bullet at the door. So a little wager is made with the best thief in the world (his own moniker) and so start the deceptions, the role-plays, the trickery and chicanery. It's all as plausible as vegan haggis but I'm glad to say that there were things that one did not see coming. It's much too bitty to be as satisfying as the first (which after all was really one big heist plot) but the separate elements are diverting enough for that not to matter too much.

But the film is notable to me for being the first film to stretch the fifth wall almost to breaking point. Some movies create their own worlds, some riff on our familiar one. But very few movies get away with the coup that Ocean's 12 gets away with. I will not spoil a very funny but potentially damaging moment but I will talk about the idea. The 'fourth wall' (from a Google search) is:

Originally used with reference to stage sets, this term refers to the imaginary wall between the characters and the audience. "Breaking the fourth wall" refers to comics in which the characters are aware that they exist in a comic book, sometimes for the purpose of humour.

OK. I remember Billy Whizz in The Beano once meeting himself coming the other way because the artist wanted to bring him down a peg or two. It was almost collusion between the creators and the audience that entertainment could be found by breaking down the thin veneer of suspension of belief. In TV Shows and Movies that reference the real world, I sometimes go down an uncomfortable path. The more famous the person or thing is referenced then the easier the weirdness is to deal with. Everybody knows who Nixon was for example. So Spock can quote “Only Nixon could go to China…” in a Star Trek movie and everyone gets it (they are referencing Earth after all and from the future too, so Nixon was far away, long dead). But the closer to home the stranger it is.

Friends references Buffy. Buffy references well known soap operas and other TV shows. The Simpsons references everything (but then Groening's yellow skinned animated characters get away with everything because they are animated - that's the beauty of it). But if Friends' world is self contained and they admit that a show called Buffy exists, don’t they sort of cancel each other out? How can Phoebe exist as a character in Friends in a world where the TV show Buffy exists? Lisa Kudrow could very well be in the same grand room as Sarah Michelle Gellar at some awards ceremony. Does anyone else have this silly problem of mine - 'suspension of disbelief worlds' whose entertainment potential also includes the knowing wink to an audience that 'we know it’s all fake'? What was that line from Stakeout? Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez playing a 'what movie was this quote from?' game. Estevez's quote was a line Dreyfuss actually delivered in a film a decade earlier. "This was no boating accident…"

Well, Ocean's 12 goes one step further and it works so well that I was never uncomfortable with it for a moment. I will let you discover what this is for yourselves… It's well worth it. Originality in any form and especially in any sequel should be applauded.

But then I am a sucker for caper movies…

Ocean's 12

USA 20045
127 mins
Steven Soderbergh
Jerry Weintraub
George Nolfi

Chris Connier

Peter Andrews
(Steven Soderbergh)
Stephen Mirrione
David Holmes
production design
Philip Messina
Brad Pitt
Catherine Zeta-Jones
George Clooney
Matt Damon
Carl Reiner
Elliott Gould
Robbie Coltrane
Vincent Cassel
Eddie Izzard
review posted
29 January 2005