Lost in the Funhouse, first published in the 1960s, blazed a trail for modern metafiction. The erratic, experimental collection of short stories ostensibly revolves around a few characters, but the book’s real focus is itself. Look at me, it says. I am a book and you are reading me. What will happen next? Does the fact that I am asking you what will happen next mean I don’t know?Barth’s
The book also asks readers: if you acknowledge you’re reading a story, does the story gain or lose power? After all, you’re no longer really reading a story, but a story about a story. How many generations of separation are possible until, you know, the human head explodes?
The story from which the book derives its title, “Lost in the Funhouse,” is both a heartbreaking tale about a young boy who visits a boardwalk funhouse while vacationing on the beach with his family and an account of Barth’s writing it and wondering about it. Think Charlie Kaufman without the upbeat, happy-go-lucky swing and you’ll have a better handle on it.
Barth’s story is the perfect template for viewing Ocean’s Twelve, the latest Hollywood offering that pretends to be smartly self-aware when it’s really just dumbly self-involved. Barth had the market cornered on the former long before Eggers and Foster Wallace showed up, although they are worthy successors. But the latter has reached new depths of introspective navel-gazing with the help of George Clooney and friends. If you thought Hollywood was self-centered before, brace yourself. You’re in for quite a ride.
Most films strive to strip away artifice until the story becomes just as real as your own life, if not more so. Great films tell powerful stories about characters who become real people to the viewer, from Forrest Gump to Hannibal Lecter. But instead of smothering reality inside fiction, Ocean’s Twelve does just the opposite: it gradually becomes less about the story and more about us watching the actors pretend to tell a story, until we are left at the end with a scene that could have come from the wrap party—the stars playing cards and drinking as if nothing that happened in the last two hours mattered. And in a very significant way, it didn’t.
Gene Siskel, when appraising a film, often liked to ask, “Is this movie more or less interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?” He would have been dumbfounded by Ocean’s Twelve, which sidesteps the issue entirely by collapsing the distinction. The idea behind the question becomes irrelevant.
Ocean’s Twelve does its predecessor one better by wandering from self-awareness into the heady, solipsistic land of metafilm. Of course, there are films like The Player (1993) that do the category more justice. Altman’s film was littered with pop-culture references and in-jokes meant to hook the audience and make us feel smart for being in on the in-joke—the poker scene in which Topher Grace and Shane West played caricatures (I hope) of their publicly perceived selves is only funny because we recognize these people and know their real names. These people get paid to be watched and act like no one’s watching, so when they pretend to be themselves it’s as if some mystical barrier has been broken and we, the audience, are allowed inside someplace new. At least, that’s what we’re encouraged to tell ourselves.
Even the closing credits for Ocean’s Eleven depend more on the audience’s knowledge of Hollywood than any developed sense of humor: the final actor credit, “And introducing Julia Roberts as Tess,” is a self-loving toss-off because (1) who doesn’t know Julia Roberts by now?; (2) Soderbergh, who directed both Oceans, also directed Roberts in Erin Brockovich, for which they each won Oscars (the justice of this to be discussed another day); (3) we’re supposed to laugh because we know (1) and (2); and (4) we’re supposed to feel smart at laughing at (3); and so on ad infinitum until we’ve forgotten just how bland—almost nonexistent—the viewing experience was.
Ambrose, the protagonist of Barth’s story, narrates his hopes and fears as he wanders through the funhouse, and the young boy’s wonderings are interspersed between Barth’s wonderings about whether the story ever will actually go anywhere. He realizes it won’t, which makes him a little depressed. Soderbergh heads in the opposite direction: he couldn’t be happier that the story isn’t going anywhere. A story that went somewhere would only get in the way of the stars ambling around and reveling in their lack of destination.
Where Ocean’s Eleven throws a wink to the audience, Ocean’s Twelve looks us straight in the eye. If Eleven tries to make us feel like we’re in on the joke (and thrilled about feeling in, and smart about being thrilled, and here we go again down the spiral), then Twelve tells us it knows it’s joking: we are only in on what we’re allowed by the film to know.
As the gang reunites at the beginning of the film, some of them argue about why they’re referred to as “Ocean’s Eleven,” saying they didn’t know Ocean was so proprietary. The characters are as good as telling us they know all about the first film and would like to know what they’re doing in a sequel. Soderbergh and crew, in a shift from pandering to the audience to essentially mocking us, have crafted a film that serves no purpose other than to remind its audience every moment that we are watching a film.
In one fascinating sequence, the boys decide to use Tess as a distraction to get close to a Fabergé egg they’ve been eyeing. They note that Tess looks a lot like Julia Roberts, and so one party dress and pillow up her skirt later (Roberts was pregnant in real life, remember?), Tess is parading around saying she’s Julia Roberts. The metaphysical waters only get murkier as we watch her run into Bruce Willis, played by Bruce Willis, in a hotel. Rather than let go the cameo, Bruce comes over to see Tess/Julia, who freaks out when she sees him because he is, after all, a movie star, and she’s just an ordinary thief’s wife. Bruce asks her about Danny—a perfectly valid question that means Danny Ocean to Tess and cinematographer Daniel Moder to Julia. They then call Julia’s house for some flimsy reason, and when the “real” Julia answers the phone we are provided with the spectacle of Julia Roberts pretending to be someone else pretending to be Julia Roberts talking on the phone to Julia Roberts.
Of course, the entire sequence is not only unnecessary, it is disruptive. We’re missing out on key, or at least relevant, action while Julia pretends to be herself via someone fictional. Worse, we are robbed of the simple joy most movies provide: feeling smarter than the actors themselves. What good is it to be the kid who knows trivia like how many movies Elliott Gould has been in or who composed the score for the original Sinatra-led film when Ocean’s Twelve tells us the questions don’t matter?
The film finally gives up what little claim it had on reality with its final sequence. We are treated to a scene with everyone playing poker, drinking, listening to music, and so on, and we get the feeling that this is what they’d rather be doing anyway. The scene doesn’t even feel like part of a cohesive narrative (which the film never had). It is simply an excuse to put everyone in the same room again and watch them.
All this while they acknowledge and condone our voyeurism, telling us before we can argue that everything will be okay. At this point we’re no longer sure if we’re watching characters interact or actors, and that glint in Clooney’s eye says it all: Exactly.