When I found out that a whole host of talented women were coming together for the Ocean’s 8 cast, I was thrilled. Then I was overcome with dread. A female spin-off is always under the microscope, meaning that they must work twice as hard to gain half the recognition. The film was worth the watch, but that microscopic lens was a gaze that, at times, sadly overpowered the film.
Obviously, Ocean’s 8 had to pay respects to its predecessors. The film handled this well with a sprinkling of cameos and allusions to Debbie Ocean’s (Sandra Bullock) late brother Danny. The film’s awareness of its surrounding franchise also proved to be its downfall though. The previous Ocean’s films had charm due to their own style of dry humour that was uttered by heartthrobs like George Clooney and Brad Pitt. The first quarter of Ocean’s 8, however, tried to replicate this but fell flat. I didn’t get why at first – Sandra Bullock is usually hilarious? She can do wry and cheeky, never failing on comic delivery. I then realised that the problem was that it sounded like she was saying someone else’s punchlines. At the beginning, her lines seemed to be the verbatim of Danny Ocean’s, leading to a struggle to appreciate what Debbie Ocean had to bring to the table. This is one of the reasons why I always get the fear when an all-women spinoff is announced.
One of the necessities of a female spinoff is that you need to have original content that allows the new cast to shine. Luckily, the film managed to do that by the second half. We were able to laugh at Anne Hathaway (Daphne Kluger) making fun of the celebrity caricature; Rihanna (Nine Ball) making deadpan remarks to silly questions; and Sarah Paulson (Tammy) prodding at the bored housewife trope. A stand out moment was when Mindy Kaling (Amita) revealed the actual purpose of a baby changing unit after running to the bathroom in a fluster. One of the reasons why the scene worked so well, was because Kaling could show off her familiar territory as a highly capable, klutz heroine. Something that would not have worked in the previous Ocean’s films but fitted perfectly in this instalment. You can respect the franchise in genre conventions (achieved through slick editing and proleptic irony for heist films) but if you give a new cast an old script then it will feel lukewarm. The start of the film was victim to this, delaying the time that the cast could establish their own take of a heist classic.
A fleshing out of the characters and their narratives would have helped the film to consolidate itself as well. In a heist movie, there needs to be a sense of vulnerable desperation in the motives of the con artists. The audience must know about the sweet revenge, the longing for a community, the thirst for adrenaline that drives a character to the point where they need to pull this con off. As Cate Blanchett (Lou) strutted around in Bowie-esque suits, her incentives never seemed to exceed anything other than a favour to a friend. With a film being so dependent on tension, the lack of impetus for a main character had a larger impact on the wider motion of the narrative. There were half-baked gestures towards eight-year old girls dreaming of being criminals, but often when the characters asked each other “Why are you doing this?”, there didn’t seem to be enough of an answer.
Ultimately, I did really enjoy this movie. I loved how such a high calibre and diverse cast were able to interact with each other (where else can you have Helena Bonham Carter be partners in crime with Awkwafina?). I loved how the feminine world of fashion was played with, but not mocked. I loved that it was intelligent and funny. But I hated how any moment that fell flat was amplified because of the surrounding hype of the film.
It couldn’t afford to mess up, otherwise women-fronted films would receive yet another completely unfair knockback. Even though the film was directed and co-written by Gary Ross – a man – it still felt as though it had to be the figurehead for women-dominated film projects. I long for the day that a movie with an all-woman cast can be genuinely awful and it won’t lead to consequences for the future of representation in the industry. For Ocean’s 8, the highest stakes are off-screen. It was setting a precedent – a heist movie filled with women. While they created a great film, they were unfairly asked to represent an entire gender. Odds which would never be in their favour.