In some ways, the disappointing Ocean’s 8 wound up being a victim of its own concept. Take a whole bunch of the most charismatic (and not coincidentally red-carpet stylish) actresses in American film and throw them together to make a distaff version of an Ocean’s heist set in the “female-friendly” worlds of fashion, jewelry and art instead of the male-friendly setting of a casino. In retrospect, it seemed like a no-brainer; an idea so strong and a film so well cast that it practically won the game before the first frame was shot. But unfortunately, in the end, the still frames and promotional shots we’ve all been oohing over turned out to be more exciting than the film itself. Once the cast and the concept was set in place, all the creative thinking seems to have dried up, leaving a bunch of very good performers weakly making their way through barely existent material.
A good heist film needs two things: A simmering tension that reaches a crescendo by the third act and a cast with insane chemistry. While Ocean’s 8 managed the latter part, it didn’t manage to actually explore it. Put a pin in that. As for the first part? The simmering tension part? Completely non-existent, we’re afraid. We don’t want to spoil anything here, but let’s just say the heist itself lacks the kind of high-wire moments one would expect for a film like this. A great deal of the setup has to do with various people securing employment and planting gossip in the papers, neither of which lend themselves to any feelings of high drama or high risk. There are a few moments where the plan comes down to “Okay first, you get hired at Vogue and then you get hired as the caterer for the Met Gala” which makes the plan seem like a delusional fantasy. Even if you’re in the vast majority of the public who doesn’t know or care how nearly impossible both of those propositions are (which is probably not a problem, given who the film is being pitched to; our screening was mostly gay men), the script already went to great lengths to explain how rarefied and secure these worlds are. It then promptly ignores that setup to move the plan forward, undermining one of the basic premises of the story.
Everyone also gets along really well. We don’t know if there was some sort of fear that the characters would come off like bickering mean girls if there was any conflict, but the lack of that conflict is a problem. A group of women come together, nod at each other in recognition, and all get to work being awesome. The end. The entire film is like a very well-executed meeting where everyone follows the stated agenda and keeps meticulous notes and is really good at their jobs. Some of it plays out in a cute way, but very little of it sizzles or keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next.
We can completely understand why that might sound appealing to some audience members – especially women – who want to see more examples of women being boldly confident with the goods to back it up in their films. There is such a thing as “competence porn,” such as in a film like The Martian, which is solely about mostly likable people working really hard to solve a series of problems. There’s nothing wrong with giving any of these characters swagger, but a story without conflict and somewhat light on personal interactions doesn’t offer a lot for the viewer to engage with. When it comes time to put the plan into motion, a bit of heretofore-unknown information suddenly renders the entire venture impossible to pull off – until someone’s sister comes out of nowhere to solve the problem and then disappear from the film. This is indicative of the entire approach to the story, which feels less like a story and more like an acted-out PowerPoint presentation. There’s a third act twist that doesn’t even feel like a twist so much as an entire other, undepicted but potentially more interesting story that happened while the main story played out. And after failing to utilize the murderer’s row of actresses to their full potential, we have to sit through James Corden grabbing the spotlight for a good portion of the third act; something no one was asking for.
Still, there were times when the film felt as if it had been pitched entirely to us – and by that we mean fashion and celebrity bloggers who are well-versed in the inner workings and political maneuvering involved in the planning of the Met Gala and who can also spot a Hadid at 200 paces and identify the back of Anna Wintour’s head at a nano-second glance. It clearly has a specific audience in mind and leans hard into giving them what they assume that audience wants to see. There is a succession of scenes at Bergdorf’s perfume counter, the offices of Vogue, the Cartier vault, The Met (of course), front row at a fashion show and the red carpet and other such venues that may have given us the gay tingles, but leave us wondering if there are enough people in the potential ticket-buying audience interested in these worlds. It gets a little too close to Sex and the City 3: Met Gala Heist in tone. Imagine if the all-female Ghostbusters reboot was centered solely around makeup, cooking, and other conventionally feminine interests. It’s not wrong to suggest that part of the audience will find that appealing, but there’s something a little gender-essentialist about it that feels a little odd in 2018.
Having said all that, the power of these actresses coming together like the Avengers is hard to deny, even if some of the best stuff happens when they’re apart. Sandra Bullock alone in the first ten minutes of the film is probably the lightest, most fun part of the whole film. She also has a surprisingly poignant final line – again, by herself. The fact that she’s solitary in her best scenes was not lost on us. Just as it wasn’t lost on us that Anne Hathaway pretty much walks away with the entire film when the majority of her scenes are also apart from the main cast. This isn’t because the other actors are bad, but because any scene that allows them some alone time are the only times any of them get to really perform. When they’re grouped together, they spew meeting notes.
To be fair, a lot of the interactions are occasionally fun, It’s just they tend to lack that energy and pop a film like this requires. Bullock and Blanchett try so hard – and mostly succeed – to give their relationship some depth, not to mention a latent are-they-or-aren’t-they queerness (that seems a little retro in its depiction, to be honest), but there just isn’t enough for them to work with in the script. They’re left to swagger, model cool outfits and play off each other, all of which they do incredibly well. Hathaway comes close to stealing the whole thing out from under her co-stars with a somewhat wicked skewering of the way she is perceived (as a shallow, grasping tryhard) as well as a skewering of the performative bullshit most actresses have to put out just to hold on to their status and careers.
There’s one very brief exchange in which it’s made clear that Bullock doesn’t want any men on the squad and while the script makes strong implications as to why that’s the case, it’s not really followed up on. She was done wrong by a man, and that’s not incidental to the story, but it’s a fairly flat – and worse, cliched – sort of motivation for her actions. As for everyone else, aside from the obvious allure of the cashout, no one’s motivations are explored except in basic and cliched ways. One wants to get away from nagging family members. One is a bored suburban housewife who misses the game. After that, the motivations become less and less clear. A good heist film will establish some strong emotional stakes for at least a few of the characters involved, but Ocean’s 8, as in so many of its creative decisions, strolls lightly past such considerations.
Given the gung-ho attitude underscoring the project and the clear chemistry the actresses share, one gets the impression this cast is willing and capable of launching its own franchise. Unfortunately, the script and direction did not get them there this time. Director Gary Ross also co-wrote the script and we’re left with the strong impression that this project really needed to be creatively helmed by women in order to support the work the women onscreen were doing to keep it afloat.