Ocean's 8 (2018) by Gary Ross
Review by Zach Dennis
There’s something performatively progressive about the concept of an all-female reboot.
On one hand, it’s easy to champion. Progress is seen through the results, and there is something concrete and worthy about seeing eight female names gracing the top of the Ocean’s 8 poster rather than eight male names. That time happened, and we had fun, but on to something new.
On another hand, the gesture is also a little empty.
Let’s back up.
Reboots in general are a sinister business. Faithful penance to the established canon is paramount while dollars and returns dictate the necessity to return back to the known property more than anything the narrative could do. It wouldn’t seem that hard then to return to the series of Ocean’s movies, which began in 1960 with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin but are more ubiquitous with the work of Steven Soderbergh and his trio of impeccably stylized and oddly cathartic films featuring George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon among a cast of known faces.
The formula is simple — band a group of well-known famous people together, give them the credence to enjoy each other’s company and stick a camera in front of them. That may seem cynical or sly, but it’s what happens and boy is it satisfying.
Soderbergh’s films glide like a ballet dancer. They’re breezy and light — perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon on TBS — but not so dumb that you’re suspending all motor functions. Character drives narratives, but Soderbergh scratched out the first word and replaced it with personality.
What’s entertaining about watching rich people steal things from other rich people? Personality. It wins hearts, towns, hell, even elections.
Soderbergh understood that all of these famous faces had a degree of elitist baggage attached to them, and he took that trait and made it fun. Jazzy undertones ruminate a scene where characters stealthy watch the intended target of the heist. Boxes materialize on the screen and we see duplicates of the moving bodies and faces as two of the squares are designated to a character weaving across the room while the top one reminds us of the people around them and the pleasures they’re taking part in while this intricate hoax takes shape.
Those movies were cool, collected, a little arrogant but so deeply satisfying. They had no reason to be so provocative and daring, but they were, feeling like lost artifacts in a sea of assembly line product placements that modern blockbuster filmmaking has become.
Which brings us back to Ocean’s 8 and its desire to capture the cool again.
Following Soderbergh’s lesson on personality, director Gary Ross, who wrote the screenplay with Olivia Milch, knows that finding the right faces is chief, and in that realm he succeeds as the line-up of Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter and our Lord and Savior, Rihanna, is more of a murderer’s row than Soderbergh could muster in his early 2000s trilogy.
The thing is — names and faces are nice, but so is something fresh, new and vibrant. Ocean’s 8 has its moments. The subtle queer reading between Bullock’s Debbie Ocean and Blanchett’s Lou is remarkable, and possibly worth the price of admission alone. Rihanna is finally given a suitable, and charismatic, role in a feature film even if it is difficult to buy that a hoodie and some sunglasses encases one of the world’s most radiant humans. And Anne Hathaway reminds us that over-acting is as in vogue as the $150 million necklace she wears around her neck — the object that leads Ocean to assemble these six other women.
But, in the end, it feels empty. Because while Ross recognizes some of the aesthetics of Soderbergh’s work, he doesn’t understand the heart; and at its core, what made the three Ocean’s films of the early 2000s so special was how remarkably daring they were.
Ocean’s 11 moves at a breakneck speed with Clooney’s Danny Ocean, similar to Bullock’s Debbie, getting out of prison and within the next 24 hours, conspiring with ten other men to pull off a heist among three Las Vegas casinos. The second film — the best of the three in my opinion — is so unashamedly leisurely with its story, forgoing the manic necessity to solve problems and answer questions in favor of collegial gamesmanship and a European relaxedness that is utterly foreign to a studio blockbuster. The third, following more of the lead of the first, flutters a bit but recognizes that the Audubon speed levels of storytelling heightens tension and our thrill unlike anything else the series can offer.
If those movies are in the left lane, count Ocean’s 8 as being in the middle with its right blinker on.
That’s not slight to the actresses, who like the previous iterations, are engaging you with their charm and wit on par with anything Clooney, Pitt or even Sinatra could throw at you. But, it also feels like it’s trying to fill in the blanks — fully aware that you know the outcome.
Which comes back to the point of having all-female cast reboots. On one hand, it is a step that needs to be taken, is largely overdue and has shown to be wildly successful. But it is also one that should be taken with a sense of new purpose. Flipping the script isn’t as entertaining as wowing us with a new one, and Ocean’s 8 just doesn’t seem to have the capability to turn into that second notch.
The simple answer is that if someone like Soderbergh was directing this, it could’ve had the panache it deserved, but this isn’t 2001, and safety is more important than anything.
Ross guides the film with a journeyman’s hand that feels familiar but not off-putting, and sadly to its detriment, it shows in the film. No one moment stands out, but the aura around the plot feels half-speed to what Soderbergh was doing, which made the punch feel more lackluster.
It’s encouraging to see good returns on Ocean’s 8 because this cast earned it and demands to be given at least a trilogy of their own to delight and fascinate us with, but they also deserve some creativity — and that may start with an all-female reboot behind the camera as well as in front.