As slick as Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's trilogy is, you'd expect the fourth film, Ocean's 8, to be just as slick. You'd be right in a sense. Ocean's 8 is like a Hollywood premiere, full of enough bright lights and big stars to be seen from space. However, none of it can replace the artistic talents of Soderbergh, whose presence is sorely missed.
Co-written (with Olivia Milch) and directed by Gary Ross (The Hunger Games), Ocean's 8 amounts to a pretty imitation of the first three films. That's a shame because it has a perfect cast, smart heist, and dream locations. Ross is simply the wrong filmmaker for the material. The script and camera are uninspired throughout.
Beginning with an ode to the original Ocean's Eleven, the film presents Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), Danny's sister, as she's released from prison looking like a million bucks. Quickly and cleverly, Debbie's skills take the stage. She steals a suitcase and nabs a hotel room for free, then she gets to work on the plan she's been waiting years in the clink to set in motion.
Bullock, as the sun sets, is silly smart as Debbie. She's a spot-on choice to play the gender-swapped version of George Clooney's Danny. Although the name "Debbie" never seems to fit. I get the whole same first letter thing for the siblings, but she should be named Dominica, or Dominique, or Deborah, even. Debbie sounds like she's starring in The Baby-Sitter's Club.
In the Brad Pitt role, as Debbie's right-hand woman, is Cate Blanchett as Lou (now, that's a name for a heist-puller). She's the first person Debbie gets in touch with, but there are many more. Jewelry expert Amita (Mindy Kaling), moving woman Tammy (Sarah Paulson), hustler Constance (Awkwafina), hacker Leslie (Rihanna), and fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter) round out the all-star team. And there are plenty of other famous faces in cameos, along with Anne Hathaway, who steals her scenes as actress Daphne Kluger.
Ocean's Eleven was a remake of the 1960 clunker of the same name starring Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack. The Soderbergh remake is the same film in name and spirit only. It greatly improved on the original, but it kept the boys' club thing going. The fun of Ocean's 8 is how it jettisons that tradition, giving the franchise over to an all-female cast. Of course, it also sets up future sequels where Danny and Debbie team up, worlds collide, and we're all treated to the biggest all-star cast in movie history. Don't be fooled. This movie is less about empowering women and more about setting up future films.
The all-female hook may seem obvious, but it's nevertheless effective on the surface. Ocean's 8 is, like its predecessors, a love letter to intelligent criminal activity, but with important differences. Debbie explains it in one scene saying, "A 'him' gets noticed. A 'her' gets ignored. And, for once, we want to be ignored."
That kind of subversion is what Ocean's 8 should be all about. However, it lazily tells a garden-variety heist story instead. Along the way, it distracts us with all the shiny things in New York City we're programmed to desire. After jail, Debbie heads right to Bergdorf Goodman in New York City, then trendy Veselka, and, for the finale, the heist takes place at the Met Gala, the gender-swapped equivalent of the Super Bowl. Can a film really empower women while being completely superficial along the way? Ocean's 8 thinks merely casting all women is enough. It can't help but include everything glitzy and glamorous and vapid along the way. Kim Kardashian is in it for God's sake.
You can throw in the fact Debbie's ex-boyfriend (Richard Armitage) is forcefully included in the story as proof this movie is using female empowerment as a trick instead of investing in it. The subplot is pointless and undermining. These women are bold, intelligent, capable, but ultimately still tethered to silly boy problems.
While the script leaves much to be desired, Ross's direction is just as uninspired. And that may be a chemistry problem with the cast. Why a woman didn't direct is beyond me. Whatever the reason, Ross isn't dialed in the way Soderbergh was with the first three films. But, Gary Ross has never been anything but a meat and potatoes filmmaker. His style is he has no style. Where Soderbergh uses the camera (and editing) to create humor and tell the story visually, Ross simply watches things happen. The result is static instead of dynamic, and it doesn't fit the material in any way.
The actors are reason enough to see Ocean's 8. It's rare to find such a diverse and talented ensemble, and much of it is fun. The heist itself is well-executed, and it's hard not to be in awe of all the glamour (however superficial). People love rich people. And people love rich people getting a comeuppance even more. That's why we love the Ocean's films. But imagine if there was some actual artistic intent behind the filmmaking instead of a commercial-like dedication to play everything safe... We might be talking about one of the movies of the year here today.