Director: Gary Ross
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Richard Armitage, James Corden
In the final moments before her crew sets out to execute their heist in the reboot-sequel Ocean’s Eight, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) tells them: “You’re not doing this for me. You’re not doing this for you. Somewhere out there is an eight year old girl dreaming of being a criminal. You’re doing it for her.” This is the self-aware dialogue of a film which knows it has a greater purpose. Ocean’s Eight, like the gender-flipping strategy in general, is about allowing female viewers to break free of Hollywood’s limiting portrayals of women as passive objects and identify with the type of active character historically reserved for men. Could there be anything more emblematic of a female character with agency, with control of their own destiny, than a criminal?
Just as with Ocean’s Eleven seventeen years ago, Ocean’s Eight begins with a parole hearing. But rather than Danny Ocean, it is his younger sister Debbie. Having spent the last five years in prison she just wants a chance at the simple life… or at least that’s what she tells them. For no sooner is she out, then Debbie is up to her old tricks. Re-teaming with old friend Lou (Cate Blanchett), she sets about putting together a crew for one big job, a job she has spent every day of her time in prison planning. The target is the legendary Cartier necklace, the Toussaint. With six pounds of diamonds and an estimated value of $150 million, it lives in a vault fifty feet underground. Stealing it from the vault is impossible, but stealing it off the neck of movie star Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual gala is a different prospect. To do the job, they’ll need a crew of seven, so Debbie and Lou recruit fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), jeweller Amita (Mindy Kaling), hacker Nine-ball (Rhianna), pickpocket Constance (Awkwafina), and fence Tammy (Sarah Paulson). They have two weeks to prepare for the heist, but what Debbie has not told any of her crew is that she has a second bird she is trying to kill with this particular stone.
While gender flipping has been derided by some (who may have other motives) as lacking in originality, the fact of the matter is in the high risk/high reward world of blockbuster filmmaking there is very little space for real originality. Multiplexes are filled with sequels, franchises and adaptations of best-selling teen novels because a proven pre-existing market makes them inherently less risky for studios than original works. With the historical dominance of male-focused narratives meaning there is not an overwhelming supply of female led franchises to turn to, the safest prospect for studios wanting to invest in popular, female-centred storytelling is to gender-flip an existing product. What makes Ocean’s Eight so successful in this regard, and has insulated it to an extent from the ridiculous backlash that was faced by 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot, is that in centring the story on a jewellery heist at the Met Gala, co-writers Gary Ross and Olivia Milch have found a story which leans into a more specifically feminine identity.
The Ocean’s movies have always oozed glamour with their all-star ensemble casts and glitzy casino settings. Ocean’s Eight is no exception, bringing its own flavour by exchanging the lights and sequins of Las Vegas for the couture and celebrity of the Met Gala. The decorated cast shares four Oscars, five Emmys, six Golden Globes and nine Grammys (thank you, Rhianna). More importantly, they share incredible charisma. Even though we are dealing with a crew of eight rather than eleven, an ensemble cast of this size invariably results in the haves and have nots in terms of characterisation. It is Bullock, who gives a steely determination to Debbie, and Hathaway, who has a blast knowingly parodying Hollywood star vanity, who get to really play a character. Rhianna and Awkwafina both make an impact whenever on screen, while Helena Bonham Carter chews the scenery as the eccentric fashion designer. Cate Blanchett shares great chemistry with Bullock, with their relationship mirroring the Clooney-Pitt relationship from the earlier films, but isn’t really given much to do outside of looking cool, while it is Mindy Kaling and Sarah Paulson who draw the short straws and are under-utilised. The star power extends beyond the titular eight, though, with the Met Gala setting allowing for a raft of cameos from the likes of Anna Wintour, Heidi Klum, Serena Williams, Jennifer Lawrence, Katie Holmes and Kim Kardashian.
Despite its star cast and great premise, Ocean’s Eight doesn’t quite hit it out of the park. It loses its way a bit in the third act. It keeps going after the heist, venturing into its investigation which involves the introduction of a new character, James Cordon’s insurance fraud investigator. The fun of heist movies is watching the heist be planned and then executed. It is a procedural genre. Once the heist is done, invariably so are we. So the third act deviation and adding of another element is distracting. While director Gary Ross follows the stylistic template laid out be Steven Soderbergh in his original trilogy, it lacks some of the energy that particularly the first film had, feeling like an imitation. It begs the question why Ross was in the director’s chair here at all. While he is a perfectly capable director with some experience in directing films centred on powerful female characters (The Hunger Games), given this project’s self-conscious focus on female empowerment it does seem a bit odd that Ocean’s Eight was not entrusted to a female director.
For the most part, though, Ocean’s Eight is a rock solid heist movie. While not quite on a par with Soderbergh’s first instalment of the series (what fourth instalment ever is), it stacks up against either of the sequels, and its all-female cast gives it a freshness and x-factor neither of them possessed.
Review by Duncan McLean
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