Even a decade later, the Ocean’s movies remind a kind of high-water mark for big-budget studio entertainment. They have the movie-star wattage and fun twists and turns to appeal to the masses, the clear stylistic sense and frequent doses of weirdness to get the arthouse denizens on board, and a sense of cool that’s almost impossible not to get caught up in. But the window on making an Ocean’s Fourteen is long past (Bernie Mac’s death shut down the chances of that happening for good), and so it makes sense to go back to the well with a different crew this time. It being an all-women team is an interesting wrinkle, especially considering the original trilogy’s strong suit was not necessarily its female characters (as evidenced by Thirteen just doing away with them altogether). And the cast assembled to play the team is an absolute dream, even beyond the Carol reunion of Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson. What could possibly go wrong?
Enter Gary Ross. Since Soderbergh was tied up with his own neo-Ocean’s heist movie at the time, Ross’s hiring to write (with newcomer Olivia Milch) and direct this new Ocean’s film makes sense in that he’s Soderbergh’s longtime buddy, with Soderbergh producing and doing second-unit on his directorial debut, Pleasantville, recording an excellent commentary for his Seabiscuit, and even shooting some scenes for his The Hunger Games. The problem is that Ross is maybe the most unexciting director alive, having long burned off whatever promise Pleasantville showed at the time with blandly-made prestige films and his inexplicable faux-verite style for The Hunger Games. But the best-directed part of Hunger Games (Katniss’s bee-sting hallucination) was clearly Ross impersonating Soderbergh, so maybe that Soderbergh magic rubbed off on him this time? Alas…
The problems with Ocean’s Eight start with the studio logos. All of the previous three Ocean’s movies do something a little fun with the studio logos, starting with them being tinted blue in Eleven, going into them being static in front of a shifting, almost psychedelic wall of colors in Twelve, and culminating with them being an orgy of colors scored to the theme music for The 4 O’Clock Movie in Thirteen. In Ocean’s Eight… they’re just the logos. This sets a sad precedent for how Ross will handle this franchise.
What happens after the logos is much like what happens at the beginning of Eleven; Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister to the recently-departed Danny Ocean, sits before a parole board and feeds them bullshit about how well she’ll behave if she’s let out of prison. After they let her out, she’s already back at it again, pulling small grifts at department stores and hotels before meeting up with her former partner Lou (Blanchett). She has the idea for a large-scale heist, of course, involving the theft of a necklace from the Met Gala, and she’ll need a crackerjack team to pull it off. She and Lou find a hacker (Rihanna), a down-on-her-luck designer (Helena Bonham Carter), a fence (Awkwafina), a jewelry expert (Mindy Kaling), and a former confidant (Paulson), and they also rope in famous actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to serve as the unwitting pawn in their plan. But as with Danny before her, there are personal reasons for Debbie’s plan, although here she’s trying to get back at her ex (art dealer Claude Becker, played by Richard Armitage) instead of winning him back. Will they pull all this off? Will there be twists and turns along the way? Will you ever get past the feeling that you’re just watching a movie you liked, but slightly worse?
I don’t have much negative to say about the main cast at all. I do wonder if Bullock is playing this just a little too relaxed, and I wish there was more room for her to flex her comedic muscles (the most we get is her yelling nonsense in German for a bit), but she’s ultimately fine in the part. And most of the rest of the cast is pretty great. Blanchett plays an effortless kind of cool and rocks a series of fantastic outfits, Carter plays anxious wonderfully (and with a lilting Irish brogue), Paulson is as solid as ever, and Kaling and Awkwafina give good comic relief (Kaling’s delivery of “oui” in one scene is the movie’s funniest moment). And Hathaway steals the show as a showcase for everyone’s worst assumptions about actors. Outside of the eight, there isn’t much going on, and I could’ve done without James Corden playing a more boring version of Hilary Swank’s Logan Lucky character.
The movie’s problems almost all lie at Ross’s feet. Starting at the script level, this simply feels watered-down and missing a lot of the best elements of the previous films. So much of the fun of those films, Eleven especially, is in the funny wrinkles to the heist, the absurd lengths to which the team will go to execute their plan, whether it’s being called a “balloon boy” or dressing up like a TV doctor. But this movie plays it all disappointingly straight. The plan, once it all becomes clear, is pretty meat-and-potatoes, lacking the complexity of the previous heists and much of the fun. There’s no silly disguises, no elaborate deceptions, and few “ah ha, that random bit from earlier has come back!” moments. Even the expected “we hid a big plot point from the audience” moments just feel half-assed more than particularly surprising (and one is spoiled by subtracting the number of crew members I mentioned from the titular number). But probably more damaging than that is how Ross and Milch don’t do much for the characters while the heist is being planned. Admittedly, Soderbergh couldn’t afford to give all, or even most of the eleven members of his crew their own little story, but the stories he did give (namely “Linus is a hotshot too eager to prove himself” and “Saul just wants to a successful job to go out on”) were crucial to the film working on more than a purely surface level. Here, every member of the crew has their thing, but the movie forgets about those things once they come into the fold. Carter’s character is washed-up and in massive debt to the IRS, couldn’t there be a little more about her reduced status beyond her introduction? Paulson’s character is currently a housewife leaving her kids behind while she does the heist, wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a little runner about her enjoying thieving more than domesticity? But they just become cogs in the machine once they’re brought in, and that’s just not quite as fun as seeing disparate personalities having to work together. And even the villain is not quite right. It’s fun to root against Terry Benedict because Andy Garcia plays him as such a prick and we know what prickish things he’s done. We’re told what Claude Becker did to Debbie to deserve this revenge, but the movie gives him nothing to do otherwise and trusts the audience thinks that that one shitty thing he does will be enough to make him a good antagonist. I certainly didn’t feel sad for him when he gets his just desserts at the end, but I didn’t feel anything at all, because he’s barely even a character.
But this movie is ultimately really let down by Ross as a director. One could sit Brian De Palma down for this and Eleven and finally get him to understand that Soderbergh is a visual director. This movie’s direction and style never goes far above “passable”, and if Ross is doing a Soderbergh impression, it’s a terrible one. His compositions don’t feel particularly thought-through, the camera’s placement frequently feeling more arbitrary than anything and there being no creative use of the widescreen frame (whenever Soderbergh goes for 2.35, he makes sure to get some good gags out of it; Ross can’t even be arsed to fill the screen with the eight). Even when his shots aren’t gorgeously-lit, Soderbergh knows where to put a camera to get the most impact or convey the most information, and Ross only knows where to put a camera so that the actors are in frame. And when he tries to go out on a limb stylistically, the results are cringey, like some digital imitations of optical zooms and a couple of PowerPoint-esque scene transitions. I had hope for the cinematography because this was shot by Eigil Bryld, the promising Danish cinematographer of In Bruges and season 1 of House of Cards (whose work on Crisis in Six Scenes was one of the few consistently good parts of that fiasco), but this movie is flatly-lit throughout, with no even mildly creative uses of color or types of lighting beyond “just flattering enough for the actors”. And then there’s the score, from the fine composer Daniel Pemberton, that never goes beyond feeling like distaff David Holmes, and with substantially fewer cool needledrops surrounding it (don’t expect any Dave Grusin obscurities here, the most we get is a remix of “These Boots Are Made For Walking”).
The opening-night showing I saw this at was pretty full, and the people I heard talking about it seemed to enjoy it, so maybe this will be successful enough to spawn an Ocean’s Nine. I certainly have no problems with seeing this cast again pulling off another heist. I just ask that Ross, as he did with The Hunger Games, steps away and lets a director with more of a sense of fun and any of a sense of aesthetics take the reins.
- There are two cameos from the original crew in this, although they’re not the ones that were announced ahead of time (sorry if you were looking forward to seeing Linus ten years later, having spent all his heist money on a zoo). One is completely unnecessary, the other is mildly cute.
- Oh Soderbergh, why couldn’t you just give another of your properties to Amy Seimetz?
- The most Soderberghian shot in the movie isn’t one that tries to ape his style, but one that rips off the opening shot of The Conversation. That’s definitely something Soderbergh would try at some point.
- This has a particularly godawful example of my pet peeve of “obviously fake ‘family’ photos”, with a family picture of Danny clearly just being a cropped publicity shot of him sitting with Pitt and Elliott Gould in the first movie.
The Soderbergh Players: Of the eight, only Blanchett goes back with Soderbergh, having done a killer Marlene Dietrich impression in The Good German and acted in the never-to-be-released The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg. Aside from the aforementioned cameos, the only other returning player is Logan Lucky‘s Katie Holmes, in a tiny cameo as herself.
Ross isn’t the only crew member to be in the pocket for Soderbergh. Eigil Bryld previously shot Pu-239, a Soderbergh-produced HBO film directed by Soderbergh’s frequent writer Scott Z. Burns. And Bryld will shoot Burns’ next directorial effort, The Torture Report, which is also produced by Soderbergh.
Up Next: Soderbergh hasn’t released a movie in almost three months, so obviously he’ll have to make up for lost time with High Flying Bird later this year.