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Second Time Farce

Be Cool, Ocean's Twelve, and the reinvention of the sequel.

In Hollywood, the one thing as inevitable as death and taxes is sequels. They roll them out, year after year, the 2s and IIs, the Returns and Revenges, and Strikes Backs and Strikes Agains. For decades, the first rule of making a successful sequel has been simple and unchanging: Figure out what you did right the first time and do it again.

The problem, of course, is that this isn't always so easy. For every The Godfather: Part II there's a The Two Jakes; for every The Empire Strikes Back, an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And so, through a long, fitful course of trial and error, the studios have come up with an alternative recipe: Figure out what you did right the first time, and do it again--but this time with an irony-soaked self-referentialism that shows you're not really taking it seriously.

The satirical sequel has been with us at least as far back as the 1967 Bond spoof Casino Royale. But at the time it was a rarity, the consequence of an oversight by which the film rights to Ian Fleming's novel fell into the hands of producers other than official Bond shepherds Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli. Over the past several years, though, this sequel subgenre has been evolving from cinematic outlier to studio standby, an easy option for an ironic age. In a few cases--Scream 3 (2000) or Goldmember (2002)--it was the last resort of a franchise that appeared to be losing steam. But by Shanghai Knights (2003), studios realized they could eliminate the middleman altogether, proceeding directly from the (relatively) straight original to the manic inside jokery of the sequel.

The advantages are straightforward: It's easier to recycle old material than to create something new--that is, after all, the raison d' être of the sequel--and even if the movie is terrible, at least it won't look like anyone was trying too hard. (In Hollywood, as in junior high, visible effort is the height of uncool.) Moreover, for franchises like Scream and Austin Powers, spoofing what came before makes a certain amount of sense. Since the material being riffed on is already parodic, the sequels still do justice to the tone and appeal of the originals. But lately the form seems to be making its way up the genre food chain, from outright comedies and genre parodies to straighter entertainments like the Get Shorty and Ocean's Eleven movies. The results are not heartening.

Take Be Cool (please), the Get Shorty sequel released on video earlier this month. In addition to being a near-scientific proof of my theory of Elmore Leonard adaptations (here for those who missed it), it is an exceptional test case in the limitations of irony, a broad, silly homage featuring more inside jokes than a twentieth reunion of frat brothers.

To be fair, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) and screenwriter Peter Steinfeld (Analyze That) didn't have all that much to work with. Be Cool is among Leonard's weakest crime novels, a good reminder of why he typically eschews sequels. Where Get Shorty told a clever tale about a Miami gangster, Chili Palmer (Travolta), who moved to L.A. and quickly insinuated himself in the movie business, Be Cool offers a strained replay in which Chili wanders into, and in short order conquers, the music industry.

That said, Steinfeld's adaptation is a mess. Most irritating is the promiscuity with which he refers back to Get Shorty. The occasional nod would be fine, but Steinfeld crams in enough to give a viewer whiplash. Scarcely a conversation takes place without someone repeating a line from the earlier film. (I counted more than 30 such quotations, and doubtless missed some.) Nor is the 1990s nostalgia-tripping limited to Get Shorty. The movie's most famous--and most irritating--inside joke is a tedious dance scene between Travolta and co-star Uma Thurman, which is in the film only to remind us that the two of them danced together far more memorably in Pulp Fiction. As with most of the cinematic winks sprinkled throughout Be Cool, this one has no real thought or purpose behind it. It neither lives up to the original scene nor subverts it. It's just there, an unsubtle reminder by Gray and Steinfeld that they, too, have seen a Tarantino film. Bravo.

In addition to entombing itself in allusions, Be Cool suffers from performances both under- and overdone. In his second go as Chili Palmer, Travolta demonstrates the fineness of the line between cool and dull by spending most of the movie on the wrong side of it. As Edie Athens, Chili's recently widowed love interest, Thurman registers still less. Her character was peripheral in the novel, and in expanding the role Steinfeld declined to give her anything much to do other than hang around looking vaguely uncomfortable. By contrast, Vince Vaughn registers all too well as Raji, the sleazy talent manager who is one of Chili's many foils. The role is a spastic, imbecile variation on Gary Oldman's white-pimp-who-thinks-he's-black from True Romance; with it, Vaughn gives the most annoying performance of a career that, even on its best days, is never far from annoyance.

There are occasional pleasures scattered throughout the film. Cedric the Entertainer plays it relatively straight as a gangsta rap producer, and by so doing gives one of the film's funnier performances. Robert Pastorelli, in his last role before his 2004 heroin overdose, has a small but likable turn as a gluttonous hit man. And the Rock shows surprising comic chops, transcending his caricature role as a gay bodyguard obsessed with getting into movies. Steinfeld's script contains some clever moments as well. In the opening scene, Travolta explains a detail of the movie industry: "You know, unless you take the 'R' rating, you can only use the F-word once. You know what I say? Fuck that." (It's the last use of the word in Be Cool, which cherished its PG-13.) Finally, any film that kills off the inhumanly tiresome James Woods in the first five minutes can't be all bad. Just mostly bad.

Which brings us to Ocean's Twelve, the Ocean's Eleven sequel that arrived on video earlier this spring. (Be glad it's not a George Lucas project, or we might have ten prequels yet to come.) While it spoofs its predecessor less aggressively than Be Cool, it too seeks refuge from its own lack of imagination in self-referential absurdity.

The movie has its share of winking allusions: The diminutive "grease man" who hid in a casino money cart in the first film is lost in a piece of luggage in the second; the semiliterate brute who pummeled George Clooney reappears briefly as an international human rights lawyer. But the movie's problem is less these occasional episodes than its overall narrative arc, or arcs. The script, by George Nolfi, resembles nothing so much as one of those serial novels, like Naked Came the Stranger and its various imitators (Naked Came the Manatee, Naked Came the Phoenix, etc.), in which each chapter is written by a different author, who spins the story in a new direction. (Just imagine how much better Ocean's Twelve would have done at the box office if they'd had the sense to title it Naked Came Brad Pitt.)

In Chapter One, the eleven veterans of last movie's Bellagio heist are contacted by heistee Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) who has found out that they stole his money and who gives them two weeks to pay it back, with interest, or else. In Chapter Two, the gang flies to Amsterdam and undertakes another against-all-odds robbery to raise the cash, only to discover, upon reaching the designated safe, that it has already been emptied by a mysterious master thief who refers to himself, ridiculously, as the "Night Fox." In Chapter Three, they learn that this same fellow is the one who ratted them out to Benedict and hooked them up with the Amsterdam job--all in an effort to get their attention so he could propose a steal-off of the Faberge Coronation Egg to determine who among them is the world's greatest thief. Subsequent chapters detail the heroes' various schemes to snag the egg before the Night Fox does. But few of the ensuing ploys and setbacks are what they appear to be; rather they mostly make up a 40-plus minute red herring which may have seemed clever in theory but is quite irritating in practice. All that's missing from the film is for one of characters to wake up at the end and realize it was all a dream.

The male stars reprise their personas from the first film, with Pitt and Clooney again trying to outsmooth one another, and Matt Damon supplying counterpoint as the awkward but plucky up-and-comer. This time it's Pitt rather than Clooney who doesn't tell anyone that his ex-squeeze (Catherine Zeta-Jones, the "twelfth" of the title) is smack dab in the middle of the job they're undertaking. And, having apparently decided that Julia Roberts was not very convincing in the last film as Tess the gangster-moll-cum-art-curator, the filmmakers offer her character a dada twist: In order to help the boys steal the egg, Tess will have to pretend she's movie star Julia Roberts--to whom she does indeed bear a certain resemblance. Throw in an uncredited appearance by Bruce Willis playing himself (a development which complicates the Tess-playing-Julia-Roberts charade), and the film is literally overflowing with stars.

Which is a big part of the problem. Not only do those stars each get too little to do, they crowd their fellow performers out of the film almost entirely. The supporting cast of Ocean's Eleven--Carl Reiner, Bernie Mac, "Mormon twins" Scott Caan and Casey Affleck, et al.-- accounted for many of that movie's best moments, but they are barely in the sequel at all. This is presumably in part because Nolfi's original screenplay treatment was intended as a John Woo vehicle, and only later was rewritten to accommodate the Ocean's Eleven characters. In place of those relegated to the margins, we get to spend time with French star Vincent Cassel, whose preening, aristocratic Night Fox is a caricature worthy of a Pink Panther movie. It's a poor trade.

Director Stephen Soderbergh does stage some delightful moments along the way--a brief, witty prologue introducing Pitt and Zeta-Jones's relationship, a deadpan scene in which Clooney is offended by his co-conspirators' assumption that he's 50. (The actor is 44.) The first movie, with its painfully simple storyline--eleven guys rob a casino--was constructed almost entirely out of droll moments just like these. But they are relatively rare in the sequel and in any case steamrolled by the overplotted wackiness of Nolfi's script.

Two movies, two different paths to the same destination. Be Cool is so obsessed with what came before that it can hardly go 90 seconds without quoting it; Ocean's Twelve is so indifferent that it sidelines half its cast to make room for a preposterous Gallic cat burglar. But whether from loving their predecessors too much or too little, both wind up drowning in their own irony. If the trend in sequels continues, they won't be the last.

The Home Movies List:
Satirical Sequels

Casino Royale (1967). Has the aphorism about too many cooks ever been demonstrated more convincingly? Five directors, three credited writers and at least half a dozen uncredited ones, a wildly incompatible cast featuring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles (who hated Sellers so much that their scenes together had to be filmed separately), Deborah Kerr, William Holden--you get the idea. The resulting mess fails even as camp.

Evil Dead II (1989). Less a sequel than a tongue-in-cheek remake, with director Sam Raimi pushing his gory story into comic caricature, while still retaining many of the frights of the original. Pity he didn't do as good a job with Spiderman 2.

Scream 3 (2000). Another horror comedy, which gets as much mileage out of the movie-within-a-movie format and inevitable trilogy jokes as one could hope (perhaps more). The pairing of Courtney Cox (as newswoman Gail Weathers) with Parker Posey (as an actress preparing to play Gail Weathers) is alone worth the price of the rental.

Shrek 2 (2004). Arguably a funnier movie than the original, but its parade of inside jokes (many, again, at Disney's expense) is nonetheless wearisome. Evidence that perhaps one over-the-top parody is enough for any given series.