The premise of Gary Ross’s Ocean’s Eight need hardly be explained; the innovations of the film stem not from reversed gender perspectives–scarcely utilized in a memorable fashion–but rather from the uniquely loud marketing that preceded the film’s release, drawn out and effective. Coverage of the cast shooting around New York City made it around the world: press photos featured actresses eating at famous local establishments such as the Ukrainian diner Veselka. A behind the scenes photo of Sandra Bullock and Rihanna eating hotdogs in between takes still hangs in the Papaya Dog on 14th and 1st. In hindsight, perhaps expecting the film to live up to its insurmountable hype was a bit of a fool’s errand.
It may come with the territory of rebooting a well-known franchise, but Ocean’s Eight immediately calls for comparisons to Steven Soderbergh’s original trilogy. Ross, a protegé of Soderbergh’s, certainly tries his hand at replicating the manic energy of the originals but falters at almost every step. This juxtaposition is not to color the past films as masterworks to be strived for, but they were unequivocally entertaining, channeling their flaws into the absurdity of their narratives in an intuitive manner characteristic of Soderbergh’s skill as a filmmaker. Impeccably paced, they featured fluid, aloof structures that all cohered satisfyingly at the end. To its credit, Ross’ iteration does manage a gratifying heist scene, but it is bookended by two acts that pale in comparison. The set-up is ridiculously long and unfulfilling, the energy of Soderbergh’s originals recreated less skillfully, and an over-reliance on twists feel like empty rewards, to be easily scrutinized afterward.
That this is one of the first films to attempt to reverse the dominant patriarchal structures of its genre–only alluded to in the previous films by overwhelming masculinity–makes its failure to live up to its potential more outright disappointing. Understanding the role of the male ego in the heist film is the first step, at which point there are two ways to make a statement. The first would be to ignore the predecessor and exist in itself, providing no justification for an all-female team and legitimizing them by treating them like a group of men, allowing their abilities to speak for themselves. The other would be to recognize its differences and revel in blunt, over-the-top gendered commentary. Instead, the gender swap is mentioned outright once in a dulled, casual manner by Bullock, who refuses to allow a man to join their ranks, but never commented on further. This refutation, valid or not, is then revealed to have been false as a wholly unexpected and unnecessary cameo from an old member of the original trilogy returns in a way that also implies that the man, of a specific race that has historically faced ridicule for effeminate traits, is not enough of a man to be excluded.
Certain characters stand out, but pointing out their arcs or the specific ways in which they subvert gender stereotyping would be giving too much away. For the most part, Ross squanders the force of the collective by severely underwriting some of the characters and not allowing them to interact with each other. They speak to Sandra Bullock’s Debbie, who then confers with Cate Blanchett’s Lou, but never seem to exist outside of their role in the heist. The actors’ celebrity is relied upon almost entirely rather than characterization, though while it is ridiculously fun to see Rihanna play a chic hacker named Nine Ball and Sarah Paulson play Tammy, a sweet housewife doubling as a resourceful fence, it is not nearly enough to carry the film through its weaker moments. Many of the core performers give individually entertaining performances, but a lack of chemistry leaves their interactions feeling alienated, and ultimately strained.
Alternatively, the capitalist satire at the core of the originals is evaded almost entirely. Whereas Soderbergh always used his heightened stakes in a purposeful manner, criticizing the excesses of the rich, Ross fails to prescribe any meaning or find any joy in the indulgence of the whole scenario. Designer brands are name-dropped repeatedly and an entire warehouse of stolen home appliances is featured in a suburban garage, their labels positioned towards the camera. It all feels invisible and normalized in the context of the rest of the film. While Ocean’s Eight has certainly made an imprint in the cultural zeitgeist through its legendary cast and marketing schema, its ultimate fate seems to be one of a quickly forgotten product.
Ocean’s Eight is now in wide release.