Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting
OCEAN’S 8. Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter. 110 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).
There’s an unusual paradox at the heart of the ‘Ocean’s’ films. After the astounding denouement of the 2001 reboot (in which the FBI team responding to our antiheroes’ heist was revealed to be a brilliant decoy, a diversion tactic and core element of their plan), viewers went into its two sequels steeled against but craving a similar, last-minute rug pull. ‘Oceans’s Eleven’ was so deftly plotted that it all but set its predecessors an impossibly high bar to clear. The quality of an Ocean’s movie lived and died with the twist’s ability to subvert any guesses, but to also make sense, to ‘follow the rules’. The crooks could cheat and swindle, but the writers could not. You wanted to be surprised, but you also wanted a fair go at beating the movie to the finish line, to prove that you were as crafty as Ocean’s gang (or at least craftier than their foes). ‘Ocean’s Twelve’, with its twist-too-far ending that essentially trivialised everything that had transpired since the first act, left viewers cold, whereas the ending of ‘Thirteen’ captured the feeling of ‘Eleven’, if not quite its freshness. Going in to ‘Ocean’s 8’, that gnawing wariness lingers still (despite the 11-year break since ‘Thirteen’), as you interrogate every development and detail for hidden clues as to the big reveal, an almost subconscious Pavlovian response developed by its forebears. Fortunately, the screenplay, co-written by director Gary Ross and Olivia Milch, is up to scratch, with enough smarts to differentiate itself from those that went before with new tricks and twists, even if the nature of the franchise has inherently robbed it of some of its surprise.
The other key difference here is the film’s predominantly female lineup, swapping George Clooney’s gallery of gentleman rogues for a handful of Hollywood’s most talented leading ladies, ably bolstered by some young up-and-comers. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock, impeccably controlled), sister of Clooney’s Danny, arrives back in New York after serving almost 6 years in the slammer for art fraud. Within hours of her arrival, we’ve already seen Debbie casually con a department store and a high-end hotel with delightfully silky moves. She approaches an old friend, Lou (Cate Blanchett, impeccably cool but hampered by an uncharacteristically spotty accent), with the promise of a nine-figure score, and the pair begin assembling the necessary talent.
Debbie has her eye on the Toussaint necklace, a fabled Cartier piece valued at over $150 million. Rather than hit Cartier’s underground vault, she wants them to bring the jewellery into the open as part of the famous Met Gala. Debbie and Lou recruit insolvent designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter, enjoyably frazzled and spacy). Rose is set up to dress the Gala host, acclaimed actress Daphne Kruger (an incredibly game Anne Hathaway), and insists that Cartier release the Toussaint to form the centrepiece of Kruger’s look. With the necklace in the open, the rest of the heist is good to go. Rounding out their crew are jeweller Amita (Mindy Kaling), suburban mother and fence Tammy (Sarah Paulson, luminous), a deft pickpocket (Awkwafina, winningly nonchalant), and hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna).
After director Steven Soderbergh not only successfully rebooted the 1960 Rat Pack film ‘Ocean’s 11’, but also spun it out into a star-studded trilogy that might just remain the coolest trio of mainstream films ever committed to celluloid, one sees why Warner Bros. wouldn’t want to let this franchise lie dormant. Casts stacked with A-list talent playing ice-cool crooks in a bewitching marriage of flashy filmmaking and narrative flair – what’s not to like? An ‘Ocean’s Fourteen’ might have been a step too far (how many casinos can the same crew rob before lady luck turns her head?) but the allure of this soft reboot is clear. While it still maintains the DNA of an ‘Ocean’s’ film, from both narrative and aesthetic perspectives, the gender swapping brings a different flavour to the film, which director Gary Ross, a close friend of Soderbergh’s, wisely leans into. It has the same visual looseness and pizazz, the same playful framing and editing tricks (split screens, showy transitions), jazzy score and impeccably stylish costuming (dressing a fictional Met Gala, replete with celebrity cameos, must be a costume designer’s dream). But there’s a gentler, less obnoxious feel to its relationships, less one-upmanship. In the old trilogy, it often felt like George Clooney and Brad Pitt were the only ones with nothing to prove, but Debbie’s crew knows that they’re all world-class crims. It feels simplistic to say that the female relationships are less aggressive, but there’s no doubt that they’re smoother, easier, though it still has a wry sense of humour.
By its very design, it was never going to feel as cool and frothy and fresh as Soderbergh’s ‘Eleven’, but it does a decent job and comes close. The stacked cast is fun to watch (as expected), and it’s clever enough to do the heist format justice. The old adage pits style and substance against one another, as though incompatible opposites. Films like ‘Ocean’s 8’ prove that you can have both, and if there’s an ‘Ocean’s 9’ to follow, I welcome it.