Film Review – Ocean’s Twelve, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou


(Originally published in Inform Magazine, February 2005)

There is a long and dishonourable tradition of big Hollywood stars slumming it by coming to Europe to make peculiary naff films. Think John Wayne in Brannigan (with Richard Attenborough as his stuck up boss!), or Sylvester Stallone chasing Euro-terrorist Rutger Hauer in Night Hawks, or Harrison Ford as a GI in London in Hanover Street, or Robert de Niro and his gang of Euro-crooks in Ronin. Pretty rubbish films all, so why do they do it? Possibly they think Europe is exotic enough to be able to ignore whatever crap script they’ve been given. Or maybe they were paid lots of money.

And so we come to Ocean’s Twelve. It was probably the most natural thing in the world to make a sequel to Ocean’s Eleven, since it’s widely reported that the first film was a ball to make and the audience was willing to forgive the odd bit of self-indulgence for what was a fun caper movie. However, there wasn’t much clamour for a sequel, possibly because Ocean’s Eleven was a remake and a sequel to a remake is not only an ugly thing to say but it also seems like, well, in-breeding.

Yet here it is, complete with the entire original cast plus additions (notably Catherine Zeta-Jones), as well as director Steven Soderbergh. But something doesn’t feel right. The script is all over the place and never seems to settle down and tell us a story, plus the self-indulgences we were ready to forgive in the first film are harder to let slide here, notably a scene where the character played by Julia Roberts has to pretend to be the actress Julia Roberts. It probably seemed a great idea at the time.

But probably the fault that sums up the entire movie is the location: yep, we’re in that peculiar country known as Europeland. In fact, it’s the one single thing that differentiates this film from its predecessor. You can picture the scene: “Let’s have a sequel to Ocean’s Eleven with the original cast and director were they do another heist!” “Great, but we’ve got to make it different in some way or people will think they’re watching the same movie.” “Umm. Let’s go to Europe!” It could have been South America or Australia or anywhere else, really.

Unfortunately the nervy Las Vegas energy of Ocean’s Eleven is largely absent, as Soderbergh takes shooting over here as an excuse to get all Jean-Luc Godard with lots of annoying camera angles. And because Europeland is so much bigger than Vegas, the tight and economical script of the first (despite having so many stars’ egos to satisfy) gives way to a sprawling mess with a rival crook played by Vincent Cassell abetting the team, plus Zeta-Jones as an ex-girlfriend cop of Brad Pitt on their tail. In the end, you simply can’t get away with self-indulgence forever, as anyone who eats too many Cadbury’s Heroes will know.

There are plenty of parallels between Ocean’s Twelve and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: both are heavily populated with familiar stars and both were filmed in Europe by formerly underground American directors. Wes Anderson has always been a bit more individualistic than Steven Soderbergh (you can’t exactly imagine him directing Erin Brockovich) and The Life Aquatic wins out over its more expensive sibling by virtue of knowing just what it’s doing. As fun as they are, George Clooney et al were mostly playing themselves (in Roberts’ case, literally). In The Life Aquatic, Bill Murray plays a washed up old sea dog, Anjelica Huston plays his bitterly indulgent ex-wife, Owen Wilson plays Murray’s long lost son, Cate Blanchett plays a cynical reporter and Jeff Glodblum plays a total prick (“I’m part gay”). None of them will ever be asked to play roles like this again and it says far more about this cast that they’re all able to pull it off to splendid effect.

Although most of The Life Aquatic was filmed in Italy, it thankfully can’t be compared to the desperate search for anything other than the usual Hollywood backlots that typify most excursions to Europeland. Mind you, most of it takes place on the water so it wouldn’t really matter anyway. The Life Aquatic also has some semblance of plot as Bill Murray sets out on a mission to kill the shark (“possibly with dynamite”) that killed his partner, making the whole thing a sort of twisted Moby Dick (ouch).

Like many of Anderson’s films it’s hard to state exactly why this works. Although he enjoys considerable cult status he must be a bane to most reviewers who find it hard to explain his films’ merits and faults without a) spoiling the whole thing completely, or b) having to put lots of ‘it was funny at the time’ disclaimers. So with that in mind, if you want to see a film with Portugese versions of Bowie songs, Bill Murray massacring a load of pirates wearing only speedos, really rubbish dolphins, Willem Dafoe as a homo-erotically charged ship mate and some of the (deliberately) worst CGI you’ll ever see, go see this. Wes Anderson is one of those filmmakers who are often easy to resist but whom you love to cherish all the same.


About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at) or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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