By Preston Wilder
It’s a good week for female ensembles at the cinema. Whatever the reason (World Cup counter-programming?), the estrogen is strong in this one, whether it’s girl gangs or ladies who lunch – though of course there are differences: the older girls in Book Club have their minds set on sensual pleasures, while the much younger ladies in Ocean’s 8 are all business. “I don’t care what society says,” declares octogenarian Jane Fonda, “sex should not be taken off the table!” – but sex is off the table in the curiously mechanical Ocean’s, the eight professional thieves barely even broaching the subject. They don’t even deign to use their looks (their ‘feminine wiles’, so to speak) as a weapon to get what they want, in the self-aware style of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich.
I guess it makes sense, since the guys in Ocean’s 11 – George Clooney (as Danny Ocean) and the rest of the gang – never talked about sex either, and a lightly competitive feminism is part of the point here; girls can thieve just as coolly and professionally as boys. Somewhere there’s “an eight-year-old girl dreaming of being a criminal,” Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean (Danny’s sister) tells her troops, kidding but not really kidding: “Let’s do this for her!”. The memory of Ocean’s 11 is kept surprisingly fresh, as if to emphasise the new film’s status as a gender-switched, separate-but-equal reboot. Danny’s ghost hangs over the proceedings and Debbie even visits his grave, not once but twice.
The long game, I suspect, is to set up a George Clooney cameo in a probable sequel (if anyone could fake his own death, it’s Danny Ocean); the downside is that Ocean’s 8 does itself no favours by invoking the original, indeed it should actively be trying to make us forget it. Simply put, if Ocean’s 11 – and, to a lesser extent, Ocean’s 12 and 13 – didn’t exist, this distaff reboot would be far more impressive. It’s not a bad film: there’s an elaborate heist (the swag is a $150 million Cartier necklace, nicked from a star-studded fashion gala instead of a Vegas casino), the actors are charming, the banter is often amusing (Debbie, explaining her thought process: “First I thought banks, because you know…” Her friend Lou: “That’s where they keep the money?”). What it totally lacks, however, is the elegant spring Steven Soderbergh brought to Ocean’s 11, and the way it made robbing banks seem like a natural extension of friendship and a stylish, debonair way of life.
Lou is played by Cate Blanchett, in what’s supposed to be the Brad Pitt role – but in fact she mostly tries to dissuade Debbie and raises reasonable objections, which is not what the Brad Pitt role does. Bullock seems muted, as if weighed down by the burden of such a ground-breaking project. The other members of the gang never rise above quick caricatures (though three of the eight come under the rubric of ‘diversity’, and the genius techies are African-American like they are in Black Panther). Above all, the rhythm – though fast – is prosaic. It’s grimly appropriate, near the end, when someone praises the heist for its precision, “the attention to detail, and the little grace notes that really make something sing” – because those little grace notes are exactly what’s missing in this movie. It doesn’t sing.
The problem is partly in the writing. At one point, the Cartier people must be persuaded to let the necklace out of the secure vault where it’s languished for decades, and the ladies persuade them with a quick spiel about what an honour it’d be for the Cartier brand – but the scene needed more, some ingenious ruse that would leave Cartier with no choice but to unlock the necklace. (It’s a crucial part of the plan, after all; no necklace, no robbery.) Later, the script tosses in a last-minute hurdle that seems insurmountable – a special magnet – only to surmount it in no time at all. Then again, these are minor annoyances; they come under ‘attention to detail’ in that useful quote cited above. The real difference from Ocean’s 11 – as already noted – are the grace notes.
Meaning what, exactly? It’s hard to pinpoint – but, for instance, ‘Clair de Lune’ in that film, and Danny Ocean’s gang beside that Las Vegas fountain, was a grace note. Clooney and Pitt’s sheer style – their blithe unconcern, their confidence – was a grace note. Movie-star style is always graceful; the brightest spot in Ocean’s 8 is Anne Hathaway, who preens like a princess and runs away with the movie. Mystery, in general, is graceful; too much of Ocean’s 8 is an over-explained information dump (“We’ll need a mule”, Let’s build a blind spot, etc), telling us what the heist will involve without giving us the pleasure of being swept along in something we don’t fully understand. This is still a diverting movie, but it needed to be more elegant, more suave, more mysterious. And sexier, probably.
DIRECTED BY Gary Ross
STARRING Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway
US 2018 110 mins