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Tess As Julia Roberts
The Movie Star's Movie
What’s the hardest I’ve ever laughed at a movie or TV show? No one asked, but I’ll answer. A few options immediately come to mind: the riot scene in Hot Rod; this specific blooper from Eastbound and Down; this bit from The Righteous Gemstones; Kramer screaming “Pigman!”; Maya Rudolph’s scene in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, or most other scenes in that movie; this one bit from an old Malayalam movie where Dileep’s (😬) character is accused of blackmailing someone, and he responds by pulling out an envelope with a letter in it and yelling, “Blackmail? No! White mail!”
These are all specific bits and moments, and I truly do remember laughing out loud at them. But when I think of my favorite joke from a movie, a bit that had me elated, the most memorably crafted scene that may not have elicited uncontrollable laughter but rather a huge, unsustainably wide grin? There’s a big one that looms large: the Julia Roberts joke in Ocean’s Twelve.
I think the newer movie culture, this amalgam of Letterboxd + The Ringer/The Rewatchables + retrospective screenings + the general presence of talking about movies on Twitter as if they’re identifiers of taste and personal moral worth, has contributed to weird and outsized narratives of reclamation. The Fugitive is not just a movie that my mom loves to rewatch; it’s the greatest movie of all time. A Few Good Men is no longer just another movie my mom loves to rewatch; it’s the greatest movie of all time. My Cousin Vinny, one of my all-time favorites, is no longer a movie that my mom loves to—hey, wait…Maybe my mom should get in on some of this film criticism…
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’ve fully bought in. The subtext here, in all of this discourse, is just the line, “They don’t make them like they used to anymore.” We’re so starved for a normal fucking movie like My Cousin Vinny—which is built almost entirely on the power of two performances so committed in their strangeness that they transcend into something akin to beauty—that I will rush to proclaim it “a perfect piece of pop art,” which is a phrase I actually have no real grasp on. Our only other option is to watch Blue Beetle.
One unfortunate consequence here is that Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is now (correctly) held up as a perfect piece of pop art, while Ocean’s Twelve is somehow, unfairly, held in comparatively low regard. We all rightly love the original, effusively praising Soderbergh’s uncanny ability to wrap his camera around too many movie stars to count, to tell a story whose final trick only gets more cheekily satisfying the more times you watch it. So why have we dismissed the pure fun of the sequel, which features this scene where the main villain (who’s only revealed an hour into the movie, incredibly) does capoeira to evade a laser field?
Now back to the Julia Roberts thing: talk about having a little fun! What a fun fucking movie. The cool aphorism that people love to throw around with Soderbergh is that he’s a guy who knows how to shoot movie stars, and that he loves movie stars, and he loves making sure the camera and the audience and everyone in the movie knows that they’re movie stars. This all rings true to me. Ocean’s Twelve, then, is the most explicit rendering of that idea.
The Julia Roberts bit—to explain it now: her character, Tess, must pretend to be Julia Roberts as an elaborate part of the heist, because she looks and sounds almost identical—simply drops the artifice. Soderbergh knows, and we know, that we’re not really thinking of this as a world with characters named Danny Ocean and Rusty and Linus Caldwell and Tess; we’re all watching this movie going, “Oh, that’s George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Matt Damon and Julia Roberts. They’re all doing a heist together.” The suspension of disbelief that movies and TV and stage acting all inherently demand of the audience—“that is an actor playing the part of this character”—is stretched unbearably thin in the presence of movie stars with real, ineffable charisma. That’s the appeal of this movie, these movies, and everything else is just gravy.
And so, to whoever came up with this bit, where we all just drop the charade and submit to the American audience’s collective object impermanence, where our homies Damon (❤️) and Don Cheadle and Brad Pitt, who are already getting paid to just shoot the shit in Italy, simply get to chop it up and make fun of Julia Roberts—I salute you. I love what you’ve done. I hope people lighten up and get over the fact that the ending reveal of this movie is hilarious, that everything we watched in the preceding hours was ultimately useless. We should all be so lucky that this was even made.
Another thing: it turns out Dianne Feinstein died while I was writing this. Maybe not while—I did this pretty last minute, as you can tell, and maybe she passed last night, who knows? Could’ve just switched gears midway and deleted the whole Soderbergh thing, maybe just taken on the herculean task of eulogizing her life in a greater context. I could’ve done that. But I didn’t, because I was too far gone with this bad boy. And because I respect your guys’ intelligence, clearly. So I’d just like to say, with respect, growing up in California: she was my senator. She was my senator for so long. And that’s on periodt….
Rip to the goat!!