Editor’s Note: As Steven Soderbergh struggles with that whole retirement thing yet again when High Flying Bird streams on Netflix this week, here’s a look back at how his signature commercial franchise fared without his direct involvement.
Before the climactic heist of Ocean’s 8, mastermind Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) stands in a public bathroom readying herself for the Met Gala, during which she and seven other women will steal millions’ worth of jewelry. “Don’t do this for you,” she tells her reflection. “Somewhere there’s an eight-year-old girl lying in bed dreaming about being a criminal. Do this for her.”
If only the rest of the movie were that entertaining.
I was a big fan of 2001 Ocean’s Eleven (itself a reboot of the 1960 Rat Pack caper Ocean’s 11) and its two sequels. Yes, they were often implausible, with stakes that grew higher and stolen amounts larger with every installment. Yes, they co-starred Casey Affleck, whose career continues to thrive despite multiple allegations of sexual harassment. But the George Clooney-Brad Pitt-Steven Soderbergh trilogy was snappy and fun, with the types of wisecracks and derring-do that would later appear in Marvel blockbusters. Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen set out to amuse, and got the job done.
Despite a stellar, diverse cast led by two Oscar winners, Bullock and Cate Blanchett, Ocean’s 8 fails to deliver. The female characters aren’t the issue — far from it. As a still-vehement defender of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, I don’t want to perpetuate the “ladies can’t do what men do” argument of fanboys everywhere. (I shuddered even as I wrote that.)
Ocean’s 8 has all the right ingredients — a high-profile ensemble, a flashy heist, a gorgeous backdrop. What it doesn’t have is Soderbergh. Unlike Ocean’s 8 director Gary Ross, who also co-penned the screenplay, Soderbergh understood pace, timing, humor. He delivered a visual and verbal feast worthy of the actors’ talents, whereas Ross fails his stars in every way possible.
The film is less than two hours, but Ross conducts the action at a glacial pace. When Bullock’s Debbie and Blanchett’s cucumber-cool Lou assemble the crew, each woman has a brief introduction and the barest of distinguishable personalities. Amita (Mindy Kaling) is a jeweler with an overbearing mother. Tammy (Sarah Paulson) is a suburban wife, mom and kleptomaniac. Constance (Awkwafina) is a skilled pickpocket who likes Subway sandwiches. And so forth.
The movie also suffers from limited settings. In the 2001 film, Clooney and Pitt handpick would-be thieves from across the country in varied ways, hitting up Elliott Gould’s Reuben at his private swimming pool and finding Matt Damon’s Linus stealing wallets on a Chicago el train. The pivotal theft is multifaceted and elaborate, encompassing five major Las Vegas casinos during a boxing match attended by a high roller and his new girlfriend, who’s also Clooney’s ex.
Ocean’s 8 takes place almost exclusively in New York’s Midtown area and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oh, and a Ukranian café where Bullock and Blanchett eat breakfast and make eyes at one another (the first of many examples of the film’s queer-baiting, but that’s a whole other thinkpiece). Tightening the scope of the score, from recruitment to execution to aftermath, severely dulls the action. By the Met Gala, I no longer cared whether the eight were caught.
It doesn’t help that Ocean’s 8’s major players are all white. On the big night, Bullock and Helena Bonham Carter (as a has-been fashion designer, her best performance in years) are Gala guests, Blanchett head of the kitchen crew, Paulson on the Met’s special events team. In sharp contrast, Kaling is relegated to a bathroom to disassemble the necklace, Awkwafina is disguised as waitstaff, and hacker extraordinaire Rihanna (nicknamed Nine-Ball) oversees security cameras from a van outside the venue. Not even Anne Hathaway’s hilarious and self-aware turn as a glamorous starlet-turned-jewelry mule can distract from the film’s problematic attitude toward women of color.
Though it features two Ocean’s Eleven Easter eggs, this all-female reimagining lacks the suave finesse of its predecessors. Ocean’s 8 has all the potential in the world, with a promising premise and charismatic actors, but never lands. At one point, Bullock toasts the grave of her estranged brother, Clooney’s Danny Ocean, while wearing a tuxedo similar to his. “You would have loved it,” she says. She’s very, very wrong.
Lauren Emily Whalen is a critic, author and performer living in Chicago. Her debut YA novel, SATELLITE, was released in 2017. Lauren reviewed Ocean’s 8 under the guidance of Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips this past summer, as part of the 2018 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Center. Follow her on Twitter (@laurenemilywri) and Instagram (@laurenemilywrites).