Cast: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter
Director: Gary Ross
Writers: Gary Ross, Olivia Milch
After 2016’s Ghostbusters, an uneven film that was neither good nor bad enough to be worth the substantial negative attention it received, Ocean’s 8 is the second major Hollywood blockbuster featuring a gender-reversed rendition of a popular male-dominated property to be given a wide release. With more gender-flipped titles in the works, including female-led remakes of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Lord of the Flies, it looks like this is set to become a major trend in Hollywood. On one hand this means more opportunities for more women to star in more movies with greater exposure, on the other it means doing so in the shadow of men. Even though attaching themselves to a recognised property does increase the likelihood of getting a green light, it means that films like Ocean’s 8 are inevitably disadvantaged by the burden of distinguishing themselves in comparison to their male counterparts. Even if Ghostbusters had ended up being the greatest comedy movie there ever was or ever will be, it still would have had to face an uphill battle just to be accepted as the original’s peer. It isn’t fair, not by a long shot, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing when a film with this distinguished a cast and this promising a premise turns out so unspectacularly average.
For fans of the original Soderbergh films, the set-up is familiar enough. The cool, calm and collected Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the dearly departed Danny Ocean, is released on parole after a five-year stint in prison and is ready to get straight back to what she does best. She reaches out to her best friend and longtime partner in crime Lou (Cate Blanchett) and reveals her plan to infiltrate the Met Gala in a few weeks time and steal the Toussaint, an ornate $150 million necklace, from the event’s host, Hollywood superstar Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). To pull this job off, Debbie and Lou will need some help from the best and part of the fun is watching them assemble their team out of a handpicked group of ne’er do wells who each bring their own personality and talents into the mix. Together they recruit Amita (Mindy Kaling), a jeweller eager for any excuse to get away from her controlling mother, Nine Ball (Rihanna), a laid-backed and tight-lipped computer hacker, Constance (Awkwafina), a young, streetwise hustler and pickpocket, Tammy (Sarah Paulson), a fence who left this life behind to become a suburban mom, and Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), a disgraced fashion designer with the profile they need to get into this exclusive, star-studded event.
Between these eight leading ladies there is more screentime to go around than with Clooney and Pitt’s male ensemble, which in theory ought to mean more room for the characters to shine and their chemistry to ignite. There are for sure some instances where this pays off. Bullock and Blanchett are great together as two seasoned cons who share an affectionate yet prickly sort of rapport. Their back-and-forths are smart and slick and there is an interesting dynamic between them where the hip and eccentric Lou is the one who has to rein Debbie in and try to keep her ambition and recklessness in check. Their prominence comes at the expense of the supporting players who aren’t as fleshed out as the actresses portraying them deserve. Carter gets to stretch her acting muscles a bit playing a rather melodramatic character (of course) and Rihanna gets some good lines but Kaling, Awkwafina and particularly Paulson, one of the most versatile actresses working today, are woefully underused in their roles. The movie pretty much belongs to Bullock and Blanchett right until the halfway point where Hathaway pulls out an intriguing twist on a role we thought we had figured out and runs away with the show. Playing a character whom we at first glance take to be a one-dimensional, air-headed showbiz narcissist, Hathaway peels away the layers to reveal surprising levels of vulnerability with some intriguing insights into modern-day femininity.
The cast is really the film’s saving grace because everything else about it feels mostly standard and safe. This is one of the points where the film might have been better off trying to be its own thing rather than attaching itself to a famous pre-existing title because, compared to Soderbergh’s idiosyncratic rhythm, visual flourish and stylised editing, Ross’ efforts cannot help but come across as tame. There are some moments that stick in the brain like when the team is gathered together on the subway and we see each member’s profile pop up on the screen like panels in a comic book before being united in the same frame, but they are few and far in between. Mostly the film unfolds in a fairly ordinary fashion with little of the panache that elevated Ocean’s Eleven beyond your typical caper flick. The planning and execution of the job doesn’t feel as slick, the dialogue doesn’t snap in the same way and that clicking sensation we get the moment when all the pieces come together and we learn that there was more going on in the picture than we were led to believe isn’t as strong or as satisfying.
Ocean’s 8 is a perfectly serviceable heist movie but, after the standard set by Soderbergh (in the first movie, I’m not going to pretend that Twelve and Thirteen were anything special) as well as the promise for the opportunity to watch badass women take Hollywood by storm, I wanted something a little more than serviceable. With such a formidable cast and a timely message to tell, I wanted to see something more surprising, more daring, and more distinctive. There is a statement the film is trying to convey about women’s place in society and what is expected of them, female camaraderie, and how the time has come for women to band together in order to assert their power and potential. Bullock says at one point, “A ‘him’ gets noticed. A ‘her’ gets ignored.”. This is a message that needs to be proclaimed loudly, unapologetically and with a distinctly female voice. Instead this feels like a movie that could have been made by anybody at any time. Sure, there’s probably a case to be made for mindless entertainment for mindless entertainment’s sake and the movie does deliver on that but I don’t think that’s all it was trying to be.