In “Ocean’s Eight,” an octet of female grifters join together to pull off a major heist and it centres on jewellery and fashion? It’s almost too perfect and yet… I kept vacillating between whether the heist was maddening or maddeningly perfect.
“Ocean’s Eight” is both part of a very current trend in Hollywood, while being definitively its own thing. On one hand, it mimics a (not completely recent) trend of taking historically male stories and giving them a female lead. It’s been done with everything from Shakespeare to fantasy to thrillers. But, “Ocean’s Eight” also leans away from this trend since, despite the confusion, it is not a remake of the “original” Steven Soderbergh Ocean’s trilogy but a continuation and/or spin-off of them. Danny Ocean does exist in this world. He is, however, dead. In this film, his sister, a grifter just like her brother, is putting together the heist of a lifetime.
Even though women outnumber men in the world (and have done so historically), women are still a disenfranchised group in contemporary mainstream media. Most Hollywood films that feature women, when and if they feature women, do so as subordinates to their male protagonists. Year after year after year, studies reveal this and the shift towards making changes only seems gradual. Meanwhile, film audiences are predominantly female. They enjoy stories which centre women in ways that are not exploitative or diminishing, which always makes the veneer of surprise at the success stories of female-driven films so hollow. We already knew this.
A slow way that studios have pushed to diversify their output is by betting on women when it’s safe, and there are few “safer” bets than attaching a female lead to a well-established franchise that has built-in support. It was the reason behind the female-Ghostbusters saga from a few years ago and despite not being quite in the same vein, “Ocean’s Eight” suggested vestiges of the same notion, thereby proposing the question at what point does reworking a formerly male story to fit a female protagonist move from centring women to becoming a different kind of regression? I’ll admit, the very best thing about the sleek, affable and consistently enjoyable “Ocean’s Eight” is that this question only popped into my head once in the course of the film’s two hour running time.
“Ocean’s Eight” is so easy and benevolent with its charm, it, temporarily, made all political-religious, socio-political and geopolitical issues in the news (both at home and abroad) innocuous. It’s the kind of charming, and graceful mainstream film with little that’s officious that presented itself like a necessary salve in a tumultuous news week. It’s the most important page it takes from Soderbergh’s original trilogy, of which the first two (and the second, in particular) are near perfect in their celebration of the movie star as laidback aspirational hero. The entire point of the excellent “Oceans Twelve,” possibly my favourite heist film, is the peripheral nature of the heist at the centre and, instead, the joys of grifting while looking pretty. A great deal of “Ocean’s Eight” is content to ape that coolness, but it never descends into smugness. Although, by the very nature of being an ensemble of women, the script seems to necessitate something more.
For whatever reason, movies with female protagonists tend to have more clearly defined messages. Consider “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover,” a female/male paradigm of the same ilk, but the former consciously and virulently asserts a specific message about womanhood that the latter never seems to come near to. It does not assert an objective superiority or demerit in either, but it suggests an intriguing way that female-friendly films justify their place that has had me thinking.
The (presumably dead) Danny Ocean never appears in the film, even though everyone seems certain he’s faked his death. Instead, his sister Debbie (an especially suave Sandra Bullock, who delightfully commits to the character’s archness) bookends the film by speaking to his tomb. It’s a move that’s sweet and vexing. Even when there’s a woman, there’s always a man. And even as “Ocean’s Eight” has been called a hangout movie, with no real stakes, I quibble at that. Certainly, the movie’s stakes are almost low in that we never once worry about the possibility of the grift not being possible, but this is a female-centred heist that has a clear revenge arc that, again, centres on a man. The women here can’t just be laid back, there’s an overarching purpose. So, even as the relationship in this film mimics the relationships of Soderbergh Ocean’s films down to the Clooney/Pitt rapport mirrored in Bullock/Blanchett dynamic, the film pushes them to something more. Something different. The foundation might be masculine, but the film is all woman.
It speaks to a self-awareness that’s important in some ways. In the savviest scene, which is not a surprise for what happens but how it happens, a new member of the team explains why she joined the heist. “I don’t have many female friends,” she quips. I laughed at the line and its delivery. As did the almost packed theatre of persons who ate the entire soufflé up in all its calorific glory.
The line has stuck with me though. Gary Ross’ direction is strangely airless (functional but significantly less funny than you would expect) but the entire cast is committing to the sweeping stylishness of it all. Is it a win for women at the movies? I’m cautiously optimistic. I actually scribbled the phrase down in my notebook while watching it. The fashion and jewellery as the subject of the heist are, indeed, perfect.
I can’t remember the last time, if ever, I left a movie immediately wanting to see a sequel. I want an “Ocean’s Nine.” One that’s directed with more panache. One that, somehow, more readily allows these women to stand on their own, free of Danny and all the male machinations around them. Really, though, I just want good films with women in them. We would all be better for it.