Ocean’s 8, the all-female heist film with Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett leading a truly magnificent cast, opened this weekend to middling reviews—our own Ignatiy Vishnevetsky called it “more knock-off than spin-off,” giving it a C and calling Gary Ross’ direction “undexterous.” Many women on The A.V. Club staff have been looking forward to this since the first trailer was released, so a few of us saw it over the weekend so we could discuss the pressure female-led movies are under, and whether this one lived up to our expectations.
Note: This reveals major plot points of Ocean’s 8.
Laura M. Browning: My taste in cinema is decidedly unsnobby—some might say undiscerning. I prefer to think of it as having extremely realistic expectations: All I want from a heist film is to have fun. Despite some lumbering scenes and underused star power, I really did enjoy Ocean’s 8. One thing about all-female casts, like we saw with 2016's Ghostbusters, is that there’s so much pressure for it to not just be good, but to shoulder the burdens of feminism in a scant two hours or so. Unfortunately that makes me less willing to be critical of it as a whole: If George Clooney led an all-male cast in a run-of-the-mill heist film, it would have just been another IMDB entry. But if Sandra Bullock leads an all-female cast in same, the film has to be both a commercial success and a feminist one in order to prove that it can be done. But you know what? Ocean’s 8 did a lot of things well: The main cast included three women of color, we see Mindy Kaling speaking in Hindi (which she had to learn for the scene), and there was a lot of joy to be had in the eight’s friendships (especially Daphne Kluger’s (Anne Hathaway) need to have more female friends). Not once did I worry that one of the con women would turn on the rest in hopes of securing more money for herself, nor did I ever think they wouldn’t pull it off.
Like Ignatiy, I would have liked to see more pleasure located in the crime, but I’m willing to overlook most of the film’s problems and be more of a consumer than a critic—except about the Met Gala costumes, which were nowhere near weird enough to be realistic, and the fact that so many people outside the con team had to be either bribed or looped in to the plan. But I’ll focus instead on what I loved: Sandra Bullock speaking German and yelling “Wahnsinn! Wahnsinn!” (“Madness!”) at the Met security guards; Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe; Hathaway’s glorious performance as a Hollywood diva who’s still innately likable; eight leading women, six of whom are at least 35 and two of whom are older than 50. Gwen, what do you think?
Gwen Ihnat: I am a sucker for a good heist movie (besides the Ocean’s movies, I especially love all the Magritte guys in The Thomas Crown Affair), so I couldn’t wait for Ocean’s 8. I dragged my kids out on Friday night (they are on record as Ocean’s fans) to check out this latest installment.
I have to say, I don’t really get all the style-over-substance arguments against this movie (as we’ve seen in US Weekly and Uproxx): Heist movies are singularly all about style, and the 2001 version of Ocean’s 11 is the consummate example. (Hey, even the 1960 version could be.) If there’s any flaw, it’s not with the all-female cast, but Seabiscuit director Gary Ross, who, as Ignatiy pointed out, lacks Steven Soderbergh’s flashy shots and editing skills. There were some shots of Danny’s grave, and establishing shots of Manhattan, that seemed to go on forever, for no apparent reason, messing with the film’s momentum.
But I have few faults with the heist itself. Like Laura, I don’t understand why a female-led film has to have a higher bar. It is absolute bullshit that the caper centered around the Met and a $150 million dollar necklace is being derided as sexist. The Italian Job was all about cars: Did anyone ever call Michael Caine or Mark Wahlberg out for liking cars too much? And it’s not like other heist movies haven’t centered around jewels, like A Fish Called Wanda, or Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight. Wanda is an interesting example (while also a comedy) because Jamie Lee Curtis is the head of the scheme; it’s extremely rare to have a woman in charge of a heist, which is another reason that made Ocean’s 8 so fun. When Debbie Ocean says she wants an all-female crew because women are “invisible,” it’s an effort to turn the patriarchy upside down. If all the members of Ocean’s 8 get to doll up at the Met while doing so, so the fuck what? You hardly ever saw Bond out of his tux either. And I wouldn’t have missed Rihanna in that red dress for anything.
Like her brother, Debbie Ocean works a bit of revenge into her heist scheme that conveniently will also make her and all of her friends very rich. (Their ultimate total even bests the triple casino heist of Ocean’s 11.) Unlike Danny, who points out that since the house always take you, why not go after the house this time, Debbie shrugs when asked her reasoning for her own giant caper: “It’s what I’m good at.” We see her talents on display in her extremely fun journey out of prison, scamming a high-end product, wardrobe, and an expensive hotel room without a single piece of weaponry in sight (just like her brother). My daughter squealed next to me, grabbing my arm: “She’s so clever.”
I wish the movie had been funnier (it kills me that James Corden got the biggest laugh at our viewing, telling Debbie’s ex, “You have two… of these” strange indoor trees) and given the women more opportunities to ham it up. Instead of sleekly striding along the outskirts of the plot, I wish Cate Blanchett had had more of a multiple imposter arc like her clear predecessor, Brad Pitt’s Rusty, whose impersonation of a doctor was one of the funniest parts of 11. But I did love the cameos by members of the Ocean’s 11 pack, and it’s nice to see that Yen is as flexible as ever.
My other beef with Ocean’s 8 is with the title: Since just the seven friends were signed on, it was pretty obvious that Anne Hathaway was going to be the eighth, because who else could it be? Nine Ball’s sister with the magnets? That deflated what should have been a bigger reveal, but Hathaway was obviously having so much fun with the part, I can almost allow it. Overall, I thought it was a lesser but worthy descendant of the original. (My grade would be a solid B.) And in keeping with Hollywood’s long-overdue realization what a market there is for women-led blockbuster films, I was happy to see that Ocean’s 8 trounced all comers—and its predecessors—at the box office this weekend. A female-focused caper movie apparently leads to box-office gold—and with any luck, an Ocean’s 9 within the next few years.
Danette Chavez: Like you two, I’m also a fan of heist movies, including Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 (but only the first movie in that trilogy; the sequels see increasingly diminishing returns). Earlier this year, I watched Den Of Thieves, which is clearly modeled after Michael Mann’s Heat. Despite all the shoot-outs and swearing, it’s basically escapist fare, so much so that it wasn’t until I left the theater that I realized there were only four women in the whole movie, and they were all relegated to wife or daughter roles. I wouldn’t be surprised if all of their lines combined made up the dialogue of a single member of Gerard Butler’s “good guys with bad methods” team.
And so, like Gwen and Laura, I was eager to watch a heist movie with so many women—several of them middle-aged, as our executive editor points out—at the fore for a change. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite as taken with it as my colleagues. A star-studded caper set in New York, including a long stretch at the Met Gala, shouldn’t look so ordinary. Director Gary Ross clearly lacks the style and energy of his predecessor, even as he recreates scenes from Soderbergh’s remake of the Lewis Milestone film. It’s more than just the confounding, lingering shots over the most mundane parts of the Big Apple; even the direction during what should be the most adrenaline-fueled parts of the film feels perfunctory, as though someone just pointed a camera at Sandra Bullock at the Gala.
At times, simply keeping a camera trained on Bullock, Blanchett, Rihanna, and Sarah Paulson is enough—this ensemble is equally as charming as the one led by George Clooney. Paulson is the standout for me; she brings a live-wire energy to both of the lives she’s leading as Tammy. Anne Hathaway is close on Paulson’s heels for MVP, though; the Oscar winner skewers her image and critiques of said image with such grace and humor. But aside from Rihanna’s appropriately stunning red-dress reveal, there aren’t many memorable moments among the rest of the cast. Bullock is solid, but the occasional sparks that fly between her and Blanchett (you can’t convince me they didn’t have a relationship at some point) can’t make up for how thinly sketched the latter’s character is.
The heist itself was a surprisingly routine affair, even if, as Laura points out, the results are rarely ever in question in any such movie. Like its direct and spiritual predecessors, Ocean’s 8 coasts on its charm. Still, that frictionless approach took some of the wind out of the second half. The closing group shot is great, but while I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel, the pros only slightly outweigh the cons in this story about pros and a con.