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Non-Review Review: Ocean’s 8

Ocean’s 8 is mostly a charming and inoffensive heist movie that coasts off the charisma of its central cast.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism of itself. There’s nothing wrong in watching an ensemble including Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock bounce off one another, performers who are both talented screen and genuine old-fashioned movie stars. As with the series of films that obviously inspired (and named) Ocean’s 8, the cast have an easy chemistry with one another. Star power goes a long way, and there’s something almost refreshing in seeing a movie that runs almost exclusively on it in this age where these sorts of high-profile movies are largely driven franchising, high concepts and intellectual property.

Properly trained for this.

Of course, there’s some small complication in that in that Ocean’s 8 feels at times like an effort to split the difference between being a star-driven caper movie and also the latest installment in a larger recognisable franchise. Indeed, some of the movie’s weakest moment lean most heavily on nods and winks to the trilogy of Steven Soderbergh movies that provided a launching pad for this female-star-driven caper. The title character is Debbie Ocean, revealed to be the sister of Danny Ocean; that is the least of it. (Even the choice of “8” in the title seems designed to leave room for two more installments making a trilogy.)

Still movie stars are a dying breed, so it’s a novelty to see so many of them congregating in the same place and to see a movie that understands the appeal of watching confident performers playing competent characters who are constantly in motion. Ocean’s 8 lacks some of the more undervalued elements of the earlier films, the problems created by their absence here underscoring their importance, but it mostly succeeds as a light and breeze caper movie without a clear antagonist, without a strong directorial vision and with an over-extended third act.

Getting the gang together.

Part of the appeal of the early Ocean’s movies was the intersection and overlap between the dynamics of celebrity and the art of the con. This idea may have been taken too far in Ocean’s 12, which awkwardly literalised a connection that was best left unspoken in Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 13. The earlier trilogy suggested that celebrity was effective a hustle, a game based in part on charisma and in part on bluff, where there was a certain ineffable quality that could draw out the trust of both the audience watching in a cinema and an unsuspecting mark within the film.

Unsurprisingly, Ocean’s 8 is populated by performers who could do this sort of thing in their sleep; Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham-Carter, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson. Even those cast members who aren’t traditional old-fashioned movie-stars have an easy screen presence; Kaling as a comedian, writer and television lead, Rihanna as a musician and performance, Awkwafina as a viral and internet star. More than the earlier films, Ocean’s 8 has very broad definition of the idea of “celebrity”, one more modernised and more expansive than that embodied by George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Matt Damon.

They had Cate Blanchett with the casting budget.

Indeed, one of the more interesting recurring elements of Ocean’s 8 is the strange relationship that the film has with technology. A lot of the con hinges on technology that simply didn’t exist in Ocean’s 11, and a lot of the characters spend time navigating a larger world of systems and technology than their predecessors did. The hacker nine-ball is a much more central character than her direct predecessor was in the earlier trilogy, much more essential to the plot and much more pervasive in her influence.

At the same time, Ocean’s 8 seems like it understands the concept of technology, if not its application. The characters repeatedly weaponise social media, but in a rather clumsy and awkward manner; gossip blogs play a huge (if surprisingly casual) part in an early part of the scheme, while another step involves weaponising clickbait that looks like it was assembled using nineties clip art. It’s the smaller touches that ring true; one of the characters showing another how to use Tinder, one character quietly videoing the latest hurdle to their plan using her mobile phone.

Hacking away at it.

While Ocean’s 8 launches an almost irresistible charm offensive on the audience, there are undeniably some key elements missing. Part of this is purely structural. The film lacks a strong central narrative antagonist, a character who exists in a role similar to that of Andy Garcia in Ocean’s 11 or of Al Pacino in Ocean’s 13. To be fair, Ocean’s 8 teases any number of possibilities from the outset: Claude, the sleazy art dealer who let Debbie take the fall for his con and sent her away for five years; Daphne, the celebrity mark and unwitting accomplice in the scheme; John, the international insurance investigator.

Ocean’s 8 identifies Claude as its villain early on, with a scene in which Debbie confronts him at his art gallery. However, the movie then has him disappear for more than an hour before bringing him back into play, with the movie even going so far as to imply that his involvement in the climactic heist is Debbie’s design rather a result of his own agency or scheming. Again, this is undeniably intentional. Part of the movie’s appeal lies in emasculating Claude, exposing him as a vacuous fraud, but this choice creates a narrative lacuna that the movie never manages to fill.

Heist stakes.

Indeed, this issue is only exacerbated in the movie’s ropey final third, when John is suddenly introduced as a new not-really-antagonist. The introduction of James Corden into the film feels like a cue lifted most directly from Soderbergh’s Lucky Logan rather than any of the Ocean’s films, but the movie goes out of its way to emphasis how John literally does not pose anything resembling a threat to the characters; the worst that he can do is to confiscate the necklace. “I’m not law enforcement,” he asserts in his introductory scene. His primary goal is to determine whether fraud occurred or if the necklace can be found.

Similarly, the film struggles about with the character of Debbie, making a poor choice in the final third that is entirely justifiable from outside the narrative, but which does not work within the context of the film itself. Anne Hathaway is good in the role of a ditzy and largely oblivious celebrity that seems to be consciously riffing on the inexplicable public perception of the actor, and the movie’s eventual twist involving her character feels like a pointed and necessary subversion of those broad clichés, but it also denies the film another potential antagonistic force in the same way as the choices involving Claude and John.

Where there’s a will, there’s a Hathaway.

While the logic underlying each of these narrative choices is perfectly understandable within the broader context of the film, they combine to create a problem. Without a villain, there are no stakes. Nobody watching any of these films expects the characters to be placed in actual peril, or even for the job to fail. However, there needs to be some element moving against our heroes, so that their skill might be more efficiently demonstrated. Ocean’s 8 has its protagonists effectively steamrolling any potential obstacle in their path. There isn’t even the implication of danger, the spectre of anything less than complete success.

To be fair, this approach has its own appeal. There is something particularly satisfying, at this moment in time, in watching a group of competent women from various backgrounds and of various profiles, being permitted a space in which they can be competent and charismatic. Ocean’s 8 especially as empowering wish fulfillment, with Debbie even joking to herself, “Somewhere, there’s an eight year old girl who dreams of being a career criminal. Do it for her.” However, accepting all of this removes a certain agency from the film, and denies its female characters the triumph of a victory earned through improvisation.

Hustle and flow.

Ocean’s 8 also lacks the confident direction of Steven Soderbergh, with Gary Ross serving as an underwhelming replacement. A movie like Ocean’s 8 needs to pop off the screen. It needs to be hyperstylised. It needs to be confident. Soderbergh brought those qualities to his earlier films, but there are moments when it feels like Ross is simply emulating his predecessor more than innovating or making it his own. This is particularly clear in certain scene transitions in the film, which are designed to evoke the same sixties movie aesthetic as the earlier trilogy, but which just seem out of place against the backdrop of Ocean’s 8.

As much as Ocean’s 8 is of a piece with the earlier films, it is also its own entity. It has a unique tone and setting, so it should have a unique character. Most obviously, Ocean’s 8 swaps Las Vegas for New York. However, New York never comes alive in the way that it should; New York is a city with a unique cultural identity, and Ocean’s 8 is built around the Met Gala, one of its core institutions. Sadly, the film breathes in its surroundings, outside of a few small scenes; characters discussing the city’s public transportation, characters riding the city’s public transportation system, the use of a food truck in the central heist.

They’ve Met their match.

More than that, Ross botches a number of really obvious heroic shots. Ocean’s 8 is a movie very much rooted in star power, so it should sparkle in both its group shots and its heroic montages; the film should pop into place when these actors share the screen, or when the film slips between each of these characters something awesome like the most kick-ass daisy chain imaginable. As with the earlier trilogy, making its formidable cast look like the epitome of cool is half (if not two-thirds) of the battle here. Instead, these moments often feel flat and uninspired, occasionally even clumsy in execution.

This is most notable in the obligatory role-call sequence before the heist begins, as the characters all check in with one another and ensure that their communications technology is working. The sequence is in the back of a moving food truck, each character sounding off in turn from the one nearest the back of the truck up to the character in the driver’s seat. Inexplicably, the camera seems to lose Kaling in fairly straightforward push-in. How is it possible to lose an actor when the cast is literally lined up for a role-call in front of the camera?

Does not compute.

Still, in spite of these complications, there is an charm to Ocean’s 8. There’s something canny in how it genders the tropes of the conventional heist movie. This is obvious from the starting premise. The film’s back story is decidedly generic for a con movie; the hero is seeking to avenge themselves upon a former conspirator who betrayed their trust and effectively left them for dead. This is basically The Count of Monte Cristo, after all. However, with the gender swap, the betrayal of Debbie by Claude is coded in more romantic and gendered terms.

There are other aspects of the film that feel quite pointed, especially in light of current scandals and news stories. In that back story, Debbie goes to prison because she refuses to speak and because Claude is permitted to cement his account of events as the truth. Ocean’s 8 suggests that the stoic silence of women is a tool that can be cannily exploited by predatory men, and become an instrument of oppression. It’s a very subtle shift within established genre dynamics, but it is employed in a very clever and suggestive manner.

Putting it all on screen.

Similarly, Ocean’s 8 repeatedly (and literally) presents the female gaze as the key to empowerment. There is some small irony in the fact that this point is made in a movie about a group of proactive women that is directed by a man. Nevertheless, it is telling how much of the film hinges on the female characters both looking for themselves and controlling where the male characters are looking. The most frequently-employed piece of technology in the film is a set of glasses that allow the characters to record their encounters, to map physical objects, and to communicate with one another. The female act of looking is weaponised.

On a broader level, there is something clever in the movie’s meditations on sisterhood, and in the networks that women create in order to survive and thrive in a male-dominated world. Most of the characters in Ocean’s 8 keep secrets from those closest to them; Debbie initially hides her plans to avenge herself on Claude, Tammy hides her life as a fence from her husband and children, Amita lives with a mother who has no idea what her daughter is capable of, Rose is hiding her bankruptcy. Ocean’s 8 suggests an inherent value in the bonds that women form where they can be honest with one another.

Life hacks.

(This is not an abstract concept. Recent months have seen much public discussion about the value and merit of so-called “whisper networks” maintained by women to protect one another from predatory men in various industries, perhaps epitomised by the infamous “sh!tty media men” list that served as either unverified defamation of character for the men listed on it or as an illustration of how much discrimination and harassment women faced on a daily basis, depending on one’s reading of the situation. It is also possible for it to be both.)

At the same time, a lot of the power of Ocean’s 8 is undercut by an over-extended third act that continues past the heist itself into the aftermath. In particular, several developments in the final act serve to undercut and undermine the film’s female leads in part of an effort to assert its connection to the original trilogy, to the point that they occasionally feel like passengers in their own movie. This is most obvious in the sudden (and unforeshadowed) cameo from a character who appeared in the original Ocean’s trilogy, and Debbie telling another that he “would have been proud.”

A matter of grave concern.


There’s a real sense that Ocean’s 8 would have done better to take complete ownership of its premise, to set itself aside completely from the earlier films outside of a sly nod here and there. Tying the denouement of the film so transparently and so awkwardly into what came before serves to weaken the characters within this narrative, who shouldn’t need the help (nor the approval) of their male counterparts to pull off their fantastic heist. It is unfortunate and distracting.

Still, until that point, Ocean’s 8 a fun ride. It’s a testament to the charisma of the cast, and charm of the genre that Ocean’s 8 works as well as it does for as long as it does.

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