I Can’t Stop Thinking About How Julia Roberts Plays Her Own Lookalike in Ocean’s Twelve

“Are you, then, also an image and an object? Why doesn’t Bruce Willis recognize you?”

By Lizzie Racklin


Since I moved in September, I’ve been procrastinating buying a full-length mirror. Target is an eight, maybe ten-minute walk away and I’ve hauled several multi-bag trips during my move, but for over a month I’ve been using my built-in bathroom mirror for my shoulders up, and imagination for the rest. At the same time, I’ve been putting off starting any new TV shows.

Usually, I’d rather watch three to four hours of a TV show than a movie. To me, following characters and storylines through an episodic format provides a closer approximation of life as it unfurls. You watch the characters, creators, and story change as time passes, be it a binge-watch or a slow burn, and the distinction between episodes creates the opportunity for evolution and differentiation. Lately, however, the open-and-shut nature of movies has been calling to me more than ever—specifically, the open-and-shut nature of movies that allow me to turn my mind the fuck off. Genres like rom-coms and heist movies, escapism ranging from sensible to extreme, have been on heavy rotation. Rom-coms are a grounded escape, usually containing people you could know if the people you do know were witty, beautiful, and endearingly clumsy, tripping into their unlikely soulmate’s arms. Heist movies, on the other hand, are a strange comfort—celebrity-waterlogged spectacles full of troubled cowboy-geniuses and eccentric art collectors—but they are a comfort nonetheless, a chance for audiences to escape into a world so unlike their own that the rules of gravity, logic, and time don’t seem to apply. We float gladly as George Clooney—or the given movie’s Clooney stand-in—explains how they’re going to steal the Queen’s 500-pound-jewel-encrusted Bible in 30 seconds amid a crowd of thousands using only a needle and thread. And they’re in Monaco. Or maybe Reno. It doesn’t matter. Both rom-coms and heist movies, at their 90s peak, prominently feature an important figure with important hair—Julia Roberts.

Julia Roberts was the American actress for decades but more recently, she’s had a starring role in my search for comfort, as I make my way through her greatest hits. The other day, I decided that rewatching Ocean’s Eleven—arguably a masterpiece—was too obvious. So, I opted for Ocean’s Twelve, Eleven’s 2004 sequel that, according to Wikipedia, was met with “generally mixed reviews.” And I need to talk about it.

In Ocean’s Twelve, it’s mentioned that Julia Roberts’s character, Tess, looks like a certain celebrity, but exactly who is initially left unsaid. Tess is recruited by her husband’s team of thieves to pose as that celebrity to create a distraction as they rob a museum. She reluctantly agrees and it is revealed to us, the trusting audience, that Tess looks a lot, like a lot, like Julia Roberts.

Tess puts on big sunglasses and a hat, along with a fake belly, to disguise herself as a pregnant Julia Roberts (please note, they call this con the “Lookie-loo” plus a “Bundle of Joy”). The thieves ply her with biographical facts and psych her up for her performance, assuring her that she can do it despite Don Cheadle’s critiques of her accent, which you can just make out through his own disaster of a Cockney accent. Tess gets nervous about playing a real person, rather than an invented character, but is thrust into performance when Bruce Willis, a close friend of Julia Roberts, enters, thrilled to see her. Tess ends up accidentally speaking to Julia Roberts on the phone and later getting arrested—but then it turns out that was part of the plan. Whatever, we’re not here to talk heist logistics. Towards the end, another character remarks that Tess doesn’t even look that much like Julia Roberts. The credits mention “Tess as Julia Roberts.”

Reminder: Tess is Julia Roberts. I repeat, Tess is Julia Roberts. And not only is she Julia Roberts, but she is also Julia Roberts using her normal voice, wearing no wig or prosthetics. Julia is not hiding from us. We do no work to recognize her as one of our most famous and beloved actresses.

There’s surprisingly a lot to say about Ocean’s Twelve—it’s edited like a high school PowerPoint presentation, the main antagonist is introduced almost an hour in, they don’t give Cherry Jones enough to do. I could go on, but let’s not waste time cataloging all of this movie’s faults. It’s not really a movie you want to think about. You just want to hit play and watch a ragtag team steal some expensive shit, maybe crack a safe or two. But now here we are, thinking about Julia Roberts playing Tess playing Julia Roberts speaking to Julia Roberts on the phone.

Here’s where the comfort threatens to leave us. The oft-cited power of cinema is that it reflects us back to ourselves, makes us consider situations that we may not live through but can imagine experiencing. Humanity is projected on the screen and asks the humans in the audience to empathize and critique, to think and feel. However, the exaggerated plots of movies like heists and rom-coms (in My Best Friend’s Wedding, an entire family sings “I Say a Little Prayer” unprompted while eating brunch in a full restaurant) are charming in large part because of how easy it is to not reflect. Through these genres, we seek to be taken away from our lives or anything that can, in any real and tangible way, relate to them.

When Julia Roberts plays a character that looks like Julia Roberts, we’re reminded that we are not actually escaping. We are an audience, watching a movie made exactly for us, in a culture that recognizes certain people as being so immovably famous that any manipulation of their fame is a funny departure from reality. To put her in the mindset of Julia Roberts, Tess is reminded, “You’re an image to these people. You’re like an object.” But wait, Matt Damon’s character Linus, aren’t “these people” the same ones watching Julia Roberts in this movie right now? Aren’t you talking to that very object? Aren’t you Matt Damon of Good Will Hunting fame, or don’t you at least look like him? Are you, then, also an image and an object? Why doesn’t Bruce Willis recognize you?

Through The Julia Roberts Situation, we’re forced back into our seats in front of the screen, back into our bodies outside the world of the film. I’ve been avoiding using the phrase “fourth-wall break,” since it doesn’t feel like the filmmakers or characters are looking at us with a shared wink. Instead, they’re laughing to themselves, toying with the celebrity that only the makers of a big-budget blockbuster can use as a plaything. Meanwhile, we’re laughing in reaction to being recognized in our position as the audience, while simultaneously being allowed to remain there. The story continues on, ignoring the paradoxical rip that it’s created in the spacetime continuum and giving us no time to reckon with it, telling us it was just a joke, just keep watching. Tess is still Tess, Julia is still Julia, don’t think about it. It’s a brief intermission in our escape, which is then allowed to continue.

Not to be all “let’s circle back to the unattached metaphor from the beginning,” but I still need a full-length mirror. I think my subconscious is seeking reprieve from my body by avoiding it, only accepting a partial view of the more manageable parts. For now, the bathroom mirror is to me what Julia Roberts as Tess as Julia Roberts is to Ocean’s Twelve—it’s an acknowledgment of myself even as I try to escape. Unable to resist the reflective nature of cinema (forgive me, Martin Scorcese, for calling this movie cinema), the creators of Ocean’s Twelve, likely unintentionally, provided a medicine cabinet mirror for their viewers, reminding them of themselves even as they were trying to forget.