Primarily because, not in spite of, the fact that it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, Ocean’s 8 is a damn fun heist flick that’s quietly revelatory.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
There are times where a reviewer such as myself has to admit that something is not made for them. Now, that’s not saying that they can’t enjoy it or love it or criticise it – I’m not about to go full The Gatekeeper on everybody here – but it’s more about acknowledging that one’s own background, including their race and or gender, may affect their responses to said work of art or cause them to be unable to appreciate said work fully in the ways that its target audience might. For example: I thought Wonder Woman was largely just “fine,” with a revelatory 10-minute stretch in the middle, a deflatingly-bad final third, and the rest of it was a B-tier superhero movie I had seen dozens of times before. But for a lot of women, and this is speaking from personal experience, the film was incredibly powerful both because and in spite of those facts. After all, I, a guy, saw a cookie-cutter superhero movie with a female lead. But they, women, saw a cookie-cutter superhero movie with a female lead.
Hopefully you understand what I’m getting at, here. Now, one could argue that such a thing is rather condescending – making wholly generic movies we’ve seen hundreds of times before but with women or non-White people in the lead roles – and that we should be able to have a “both” situation in what’s become the either/or “female-led movies” “narrative re-invention” paradigm. It is a fair conversation to have, but representation, even baseline-quality representation, is still representation for a lot of people and that does not negate the powerful reaction the target audience may have to it. Home was nowhere near DreamWorks Animation’s best work, but do you think that matters to the young Black girls that saw themselves represented on-screen by Tip in a genre and medium that massively excludes them, and, more importantly, do you want to be the one negating their responses?
I bring this up because I want to make something very clear. I really liked Ocean’s 8. I had a tonne of fun, I was very easily swept up by the escapist chillout vibe and sheer wattage of star-power, and there was rarely a moment where I didn’t have a beaming smile on my face, even whilst acknowledging a few stumbles in its construction. I, however, saw it with a girl friend of mine and she full-on LOVED it. Before the film started, she informed me that she would probably time heading to the toilet for one of the “quieter” moments, but instead stayed glued to that seat the whole time and had a smile wider than even mine by the time the credits rolled. And the reason why she loved it so much? Because 8 is just an Ocean’s movie but with a female cast.
That fact is also why it’s taken me a third of this ostensible review to start talking about Ocean’s 8 itself. See, Ocean’s films are really hard to review in any kind of depth both because they are extremely upfront, surface-level, simple movies of the “what you see is exactly what you get” kind, and because they are so good at what they do that talking in-depth about them is extremely hard and crosses over into “explaining the joke” territory. These films have narratives – 8’s follows Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), Danny’s sister, who has just been paroled from prison and is setting into action a plan years in the making to rob the MET Gala with the aid of a crack team of fellow con artists – but they and actual substantial character work take a long, large backseat to the real pleasures of these films. Namely: the sheer star-power of watching glamourous charismatic movie stars all congregate in one film to be extremely charming with one another, the laid-back low-stakes hangout vibe that said star-power provides, and the joys of watching a complex heist come together largely without a hitch (plus one or two post-heist reveals of what really happened).
These are the pleasures that the Ocean’s series provides, and 8 nails in the departments that count. Star-power? Well, with Bullock as the mastermind, Cate Blanchett as the loyal no. 2, Sarah Paulson as the retired criminal who’s anything but, Helena Bonham Carter as a washed-up Irish fashion designer, Mindy Kaling as a skilled jewellery maker still living with her mother, Rihanna as a pot-smoking hacker, Awkwafina as a raucous pickpocket, and Anne Hathaway as the dim and vainglorious mark, that’s a big check. None of their characters are especially well-defined or deeply-explored, but none of them are clear analogues or distaff counterparts for the Clooney-led crew of the Steven Soderbergh movies either. That extends to Debbie, too, who could just as easily have been “Danny in a dress” but Bullock and the script, co-written by Olivia Milch and director Gary Ross, instead shift things in a slightly different direction (one that constitutes spoilers for further discussion) than that, creating somebody who feels like an Ocean but isn’t a mere female do-over.
Yeah, I’ll cut the bullshit and stop talking around it. Doing a heist movie, traditionally one of the most masculine outlets of escapist fantasy – built upon codes of brotherhood, archetypes of charming rogues, and that extremely masculine idea of successfully flaunting institutions of authority and getting away with it – with a crew entirely comprised of women really does alter the feel and vibe in subtle but exciting ways. Particularly since 8 chooses to interweave the inherent masculinity of the genre with the inherent femininity provided by the new cast, rather than downplaying one or the other. My friend explicitly pointed out one bit during the film’s end montage that she knew would have many male critics’ eyes rolling, but she found to be the kind of cool escapist imagery she otherwise can’t relate to in male-led films like these. A lot of male critics will probably be breaking their keyboards in their sprints to demonstrate that they too took Gender Studies 101 one time, and in fact already have done, but their rush to do so will only serve to demonstrate them missing the point.
Ocean’s 8 is not a movie with pretensions to being more than another one of the Ocean’s films but with women. And whilst, yes, it would have been nice for the characters to have been more defined, or for the heist to have been as complex and audacious as in Eleven, or for Ross to have displayed even a quarter of the style that Soderbergh had, which is something no amount of gaudy iMovie transitions can hide… to fixate on those facts is to judge 8 by standards it has no interest in meeting. If anything, 8 takes its inspiration less from Soderbergh’s movies and more from the Rat Pack-starring original from 1960, where the thrill and joy came from watching bonafide Movie Stars hanging out, letting us in to their little group for almost 2 hours and radiating in that cool and that charisma. It’s that kind of escapism but with a switch up of masculine cool for feminine cool which here is often represented in the fashion of the cast, the glamorousness of the MET Gala itself, the expensive jewellery, the joys of being around and finding friendships in other women, and drawing attention to the confidence of self-assured women that society largely ignores or disdains.
And it works! By God, it works! Movie feel is inordinately hard to talk about in detail, hence the rather vague nature of this review, but the gender flip that Ocean’s 8 performs works, providing something that simultaneously feels comforting and familiar yet new and exciting. Whilst he’s lacking in style, Ross, aided by Daniel Pemberton’s rock-solid score, still nails the easy-going, fun, breezy vibe that’s vital to the appeal of these films, and the cast are all clearly having the time of their lives in getting to kick back and flex their magnetic screen presences for a while – Hathaway, Awkwafina, and Bonham-Carter in particular damn-near walk away with the film. And as the film winds down towards the end, laying all of its cards out on the table, I was greeted with the very pleasant surprise that the heist narrative, seemingly on the backburner in favour of vibe, had a few twists up its sleeve too.
So we come back to that exchange of thoughts post-viewing. The nitty-gritty of my friend and I’s reactions were largely identical, and our smiles were both wide and beaming, but hers was just that much wider and that much brighter than my own. I really enjoyed Ocean’s 8 because I really enjoy these movies and other movies like them, and Ocean’s 8 is a damn great version of both an Ocean’s movie and a heist movie (of which Ocean’s films are practically their own distinct subgenre). But she LOVED Ocean’s 8 because the subtle yet vital changes in feel brought on by it being “an Ocean’s movie but with women” allowed her the chance to partake in the kind of freewheeling escapism that until now had largely been the domain of men. If they do end up making proper sequels to this, and they really should because I already want regular instalments until I die, then maybe we can start talking about adding further depth to characters or finding other fundamental ways to innovate and freshen up the heist genre. For now, though, Ocean’s 8 is more than enough.
Also, whomever is responsible for dressing Cate Blanchett is not getting paid anywhere near enough. I want that wardrobe. All of it.
Callum Petch, 69 police.