When audiences go to an Ocean’s movie, there’s a certain filmgoing experience they’re after: a slick plot, a quick pace, memorable characters, fun dialogue, catchy music, great editing… these are the key things that connected Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and its sequels Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Ocean’s 13 (2007). Audiences bought tickets to be entertained and savour the meta-awareness they’re perhaps watching celebrities play heightened versions of themselves.
Over 10 years later, Ocean’s 8 tries to follow the same formula, even employing the same characters (Elliott Gould’s Reuben appears, as does Qin Shaobo’s Yen, and George Clooney’s Danny is the brother of Sandra Bullock’s lead Debbie). However, while Ocean’s 8 mimics the same production style, it suffers from the spin-off curse: compared to the original trilogy, it doesn’t create the same amount of excitement or desire to see Ocean’s 9 and Ocean’s 10.
This is due to a multitude of factors, the first of which is the actresses rounded up for this iteration. Knowing that this is a film starring eight women, and will thus, unfortunately, affect the perception of women-led films, let me be clear and say the movie’s problems don’t rest with the casting of women.
Ocean’s 8 wouldn’t have been better if it was made with eight men in the roles. In fact, as Debbie says in the film, “women are ignored, and for once we want that”. This is a heist movie set at the Met Gala, a fashion-focused event, where women are a dime a dozen. Hence, for the plot to work, it has to involve mostly women.
The problem with the actresses here are their interpretations of their characters, and of the previous Ocean’s movies. The Ocean’s are pulpy fun, and most of it rests on the shoulders of the characters. The original ensemble was campy, and it always seemed as if the audience was just watching a group of actors who knew they were on screen and dialled up their charm to a thousand.
The Ocean’s movies were always self-referencing their own ridiculousness, and their charm helped keep audiences happy. The heists were preposterous and their success lay in the ability for the audience to suspend their disbelief for a few hours, just because it bowled you over with its charm.
In Ocean’s 8, besides Anne Hathaway, none of the cast seem to know how to be charming and tongue-in-cheek. Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Awkwafina, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, and most of the celebrity cameos, all prioritise looking cool over being funny.
And despite each of them having at least one scene where they make a funny quip or joke, it’s played as comic relief that pulls away from the plot, not as something part of the movie’s DNA. This was especially tiring when you take into consideration the calibre of comedic roles that these people have played (Miss Congeniality (2000), The Mindy Project, etc). It’s not as if these actresses aren’t funny. In fact, during recent press interviews, you can see how amusing they are bouncing off each other. It’s bewildering this wasn’t brought onto the screen.
In this sense, Anne Hathaway manages to hold down the film by playing a self-absorbed actress to a tee. The screen lit up with fun every time is focused on her, as it seemed we were always a second away from a knowing wink to the camera. She exaggerates laughs and expressions, helping make every scene with the other characters matter, and the movie benefited the most when Hathaway got to spend more time with the other characters in the second half.
Another issue that derails Ocean’s 8 is the cinematography. The production style resembles Steven Soderbergh’s originals, but only superficially. There are quick cuts and a fast pace, but none of it’s exciting. From the first scene onwards, it seemed as if the screen was so focused on the structure of the film that it didn’t bother to make it look cool. The quick cutting and the music became the only part to retain a Ocean’s vibe, as the rest of the film seemed like it was perpetually covered in grey.
In terms of the plot, it was a believable enough Ocean’s heist, so props to the writers Gary Ross (also director) and Olivia Milch. It should have been better executed, however, as the script’s failings ended up exposing an issue with most Ocean’s plots: they’re too simple and too unrealistic, and when you don’t have enough charm to make that into a good time, it all falls apart. Ocean’s 8 ends up suffering the curse that afflicts most reboots: when you make a film based on a previous version (itself a remake of a well-regarded original), audiences will go to the new one expecting similar results. Or at least something that keeps defining characteristics intact.
Ocean’s 8 is, unfortunately, the boring sister of the originals.
However, the reason that Ocean’s 8 doesn’t get zero stars is because, as a movie viewed without franchise baggage, it isn’t terrible. It’s just a generic summer blockbuster heist movie. If it didn’t need to follow the Ocean’s playbook, that might’ve loosened the story enough to pursue a more interesting style of its own. These characters wouldn’t be subject to any expectations of what their male predecessors delivered, and audiences could better judge them on their own merits. Having a movie that isn’t funny isn’t a bad thing… it’s just bad when the expectation of laughing is sewn up in the pre-sell.
Cast & Crew
director: Gary Ross.
writers: Gary Ross & Olivia Milch (story by Gary Ross).
starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna & Helena Bonham Carter.
You can also read Charing’s thoughts on heist movies, including Ocean’s 8, over at Tickx.