Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helen Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina
2018 is fast becoming the Year of the Woman. With women generally taking a stand against sexism and demanding equality more than ever, it was only a matter of time before cinema began to reflect that, particularly with the #MeToo movement showing no signs of slowing. Ocean’s 8, a film with an all-female ensemble at the helm, has been in the works for a few years, but its time of release could not be more apt. It is the fourth film in the normally male-led Ocean’s series (or a sequel to the previous trilogy, depending on how you want to look at it), and it features some of the strongest, most talented actresses ever to have graced the big screen. It all looks like a recipe for success, something that might not have been true even just five years ago, with female-led movies considered to be unprofitable pretty much throughout cinematic history. But does the film actually hold its own amongst the hype that is currently surrounding anything that is female-led?
First off, I would like to divulge that I have not seen Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 12 or Ocean’s 13 (I may have seen Ocean’s 11 once many years ago but I don’t have much recollection of it other than it didn’t really enthral me). Secondly, it was a conscious choice to not see those films before Ocean’s 8. To that end, my review of Ocean’s 8 will be based on the film as its own entity, particularly due to its importance (whether it’s a “good” film or not) in championing women in roles that aren’t so stereotypical.
After five or so years in prison, Debbie Ocean (Bullock), sister of Danny Ocean (George Clooney, in previous Ocean’s movies), is released on parole. During her incarceration, Debbie plotted a heist that will involve stealing a $150 million Cartier necklace. In order to succeed, she goes about putting a professional team together: Lou (Blanchett), who goes way back with Debbie in their criminal history; Rose (Bonham Carter), a fashion designer whose career is plummeting and owes $5 million to the IRS; Nine Ball (Rihanna), a computer hacker; Amita (Kaling), a jewellery-maker; Constance (Awkwafina), a talented thief; and Tammy, another old friend of Debbie’s who uses her perfect-looking family life as a cover for her business of selling stolen goods out of her garage. Together, they plan to manipulate snobby air-head actress Daphne Kluger (Hathaway) into attending the annual Met Gala wearing the necklace, creating an opportunity for them to steal it and split the earnings.
As a standalone film, the story just about holds up. It’s very female-centric, from the setting to the target and the wardrobe to the dialogue (which had input from relative newcomer Olivia Milch in co-screenwriting duties). It definitely draws women in where male-dominated movies draw men in. It gives women things to relate to, even if it’s in a very superficial and pop-culture-based way (take a shot for every mainstream celebrity/reality television star you spot, you’ll be drunk very quickly). It’s a very basic story, though. There’s nothing in particular about it that makes it stand out. Yes, it’s female-led, but we’ve seen this kind of story many times before. And does it pass the Bechdel Test? Well, the simple answer is, yes, technically it does. However, without giving too much away, when Debbie’s motive for the heist (other than money) comes to light, it throws the test result into question. It kind of ends up becoming the backbone of the plot, which is a bit of a shame. It could so easily have been turned in a different direction and actually fully supported the Bechdel test, but it’s just one aspect that ends up letting it down in numerous ways.
Bullock provides a strong opener in the character of Debbie, but the arrival of Blanchett’s Lou very quickly announces the pair as a duo rather than Debbie being the ultimate leader, and their chemistry as characters verges on an attraction between them. Being the titular character, Debbie is the brains of the operation, and Bullock plays her exactly the way we’d expect her to: straight up and expository. Lou is much more stylised, being a world away from most roles we see Blanchett in, which is most welcome. None of the other characters have quite the charm of Lou or the leading presence of Debbie, but they all have their own uniqueness: Nine Ball and Constance have their own individuality, and their ethnicities provide much needed diversity. Tammy proves that not all suburban mothers are just that, and in a bit of a downturn Rose is rather a forgettable character, despite her outrageous fashions. Hathaway’s Daphne is as annoying as she sounds and although Hathaway doesn’t provide one of her better performances, it’s clear she had a lot of fun playing the part.
Despite cameos from previous Ocean’s characters and various references, there’s really no dire need to have seen the Soderbergh-directed trilogy. However, it’s also a film that won’t let you forget where it came from. Something about tying it to the series kept it from becoming something even more than it was. A group of women planning a heist and choosing to be criminals? It’s unusual and frankly sounds incredibly fun (in the land of fiction), and its strong cast would make sure of that. Other than perhaps Rihanna and Awkwafina, who do just fine in their roles, all the actresses are highly experienced and incredibly talented, fully capable of drawing in strong box-office numbers. It’s a real breath of fresh air to see them in roles that do not require men in any form or see them shying away from anything (no damsels in distress will you see here). There’s so much potential, but it’s held back by being tied to a male-dominated series, as though it had boundaries to adhere to. Perhaps it was to do with marketing and not letting the women entirely off the man-held leash, but it meant Bullock’s Debbie was always going to be just a female version of Clooney’s Danny. Had she not held the surname of ‘Ocean’, she might have been able to stand stronger on her own two feet and the story could have sought out directions that don’t entirely follow in previous footsteps.
Perhaps all of this is too harsh – should we just be grateful that women finally have this kind of movie as their own? Maybe. But give us an inch, we’ll take a mile, thank you. Any future movies of this kind will have higher expectations, now everyone is becoming more aware of what women are capable of, something us women have always known, if not always been able to realise. Taking stories in new, fresh directions is the next step. A little less Danny Ocean and a little more Thelma and Louise might have been more applicable in this instance, and it’s possibly something to bear in mind for the future.