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Wednesday , November 21 2018

‘Ocean’s 8’ covers familiar territory

Starry charm full of memorable characters

Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” remake is a hard movie to live up to. Its starry charm was backed by a breezy and deceptively dense script full of memorable characters, dizzyingly complex logistics and lively filmmaking that Soderbergh himself couldn’t even recreate in the two sequels. But it is undeniable that even the near-perfect “Eleven” was missing something pretty major: Women. You know, besides Julia Roberts, that blackjack dealer and the one exotic dancer.

So why not, 17 years later, fix that egregious oversight by gathering up a few Oscar and Emmy winners and nominees, a Grammy-winner and a buzzy comedienne to keep that Ocean’s franchise going and acknowledge the other half of the human population? If only “Ocean’s 8” was as a fresh and smart as that first one. (Hint: It’s not for lack of star charisma or talent.)

Sandra Bullock anchors the cast as Debbie Ocean, the never-before-mentioned sister of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean, who has taken up the family business to varying degrees of success (we meet her in a parole hearing) and prefers to work without “hims.” “Hers,” she later explains, can go unnoticed.

And indeed, Debbie uses what could be a handicap very much to her advantage in a rollicking shoplifting spree at Bergdorf’s. It helps, of course, when you look like Sandra Bullock and you happen to have left jail in full hair, makeup and cocktail dress. But it’s still quite a bit of fun seeing her act the part of a wealthy and entitled shopper who tries to demand a refund for the items she’s literally just pinched from their shelves. 90 percent of her method is simply looking like she belongs and taking advantage of the privileges that affords her.

Don’t expect this level of class or gender commentary from the rest of the film, however. “Ocean’s 8” suffers from a bit of tonal whiplash. Half the time it seems to be veering into grotesque “Sex and the City” worship of brands and celebrity.

Debbie’s plan is to steal a $150 million diamond necklace. In order to do so, she and her assembled team of savants have to first infiltrate the orbit of a vapid celeb, Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), and convince her to wear said necklace to the Met Gala, where they’ll steal it and divide the earnings accordingly (a cool $16.5 million each).

The team includes Lou (Cate Blanchett), who dresses like a glam rocker and spends her time watering down well vodka for profit; Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), a kooky past-her-prime fashion designer desperate for a comeback; a jeweler in a rut, Amita (Mindy Kaling); Nine Ball (Rihanna), a hacker in dreadlocks; Constance (Awkwafina), a pickpocket; and Tammy (Sarah Paulson), a suburban mom who can’t quite quit her white collar crime ways.

Memorable

While Blanchett and Bullock are predictably solid in their roles and get at least a few memorable moments of worthy banter, it’s Hathaway who really steals the film with a wickedly on-point satiric turn a spoiled star. It is Hathaway’s Miranda Priestly moment, and could have only been made better had she gone full-meta and played a character named “Anne Hathaway.”

The celebrity skewering is first-rate, but, for the most part, if you’ve seen Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” you’ve basically seen “Ocean’s 8” too. Director and co-writer Gary Ross (“The Hunger Games”) follows familiar story beats and attempts, unsuccessfully, to ape Soderbergh’s filmmaking style. And his glimpse inside the Met Gala makes that famously glamorous event look awfully pedestrian.

It also doesn’t help that the stakes never seem all that real in “Ocean’s 8,”and when they do finally get an adversary, in a detective played by James Corden, it’s more for laughs.

There was a danger to “Ocean’s Eleven” and a thrill in seeing that team succeed. Here, none of the women seem to have any fallibility at all, and you never find yourself doubting whether or not they can pull it off. Perhaps there is something subversive to the idea that all Debbie has to do is social shame two security guys from entering a women’s restroom, but we’re there for a something more elaborate too.

That’s kind of the overall problem of “Ocean’s 8.” It’s all predicated on the fact that women are often underestimated. But in making that point, it’s also somehow underestimated the audience who still should be entitled to a smart, fun heist, no matter who is pulling it off.

On the scale of Rube Goldberg ingenuity, it’s not the most dizzying or outrageous heist you’ve ever seen; it doesn’t scale the rafters of high-wire insanity the way the one in “Ocean’s Eleven” did. (Then again, what has?) But it’s clever enough to get by. It leaves you with that classic head-spinning “Ocean’s” feeling of “Yep, I bought what I just saw,” even when your head stops spinning enough to tell you that what you just saw is a pleasantly preposterous mission impossible.

Yet one of the sly jokes of “Ocean’s 8” is that the crooks in question pull off their “feminine” version of a heist not because they care (much) about the la-di-da trappings of glamour, but because they’ve got a hardened knowledge of how those trappings play out in the real world. That gives them a distinct advantage. When Kluger (Hathaway), the evening’s beaming celebrity guest of honor, who’s wearing the Toussaint necklace, is made ill by the vegan soup she’s eating and has to stumble into the ladies’ room to throw up, only to emerge without the necklace, there’s more than a bit of girls’-club wiles at work in the logistics of the deception. (They hinge on men not being allowed in the ladies’ room, which is no mere rule. It’s chivalry.) “A him gets noticed,” says Debbie. “A her gets ignored. For once, we want to be ignored.” And why not? When you’re stealing a mound of jewelry that’s worth more than Mr. Big’s portfolio, who wouldn’t use every advantage under the chandelier?

In a better world — the one that’s now arriving like a locomotive but isn’t completely here yet — the notion of doing a “gender-flipped” remake of, or sequel to, a beloved Hollywood movie wouldn’t seem innovative or audacious or a challenge to the status quo. It wouldn’t seem like anything more than the most natural thing in the world to do. (Agencies)

Yet two summers ago, when our moviemaking system gave the concept a walk-around-the-block tryout with the all-female remake of “Ghostbusters,” the result was an unfortunate debacle — not because the film itself was so bad (though let’s be honest: For all the wicked talent of its stars, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, it never did figure out how to do a new version of Bill Murray’s standing-outside-the-frame absurdist snark), but because the vicious hostility it inspired represented a full-scale volcanic eruption of on-line misogyny. Whatever one’s opinion of the movie, the trolling basically came down to a single toxic thought: Women have no right to be remaking “our” favorite ‘80s bro comedy!

The first thing to say about “Ocean’s 8” is that it takes the bad karma that clung — unfairly — to the “Ghostbusters” remake and leaves it out in the trash. For here’s a gender-flipped sequel that not only works just fine, but renders the whole “novelty” of the concept a borderline irrelevance. A crew of women teaming up to boldly go where so many male-dominated heist teams, from “Rififi” to “The Italian Job” to the “Ocean’s” films, from “The Asphalt Jungle” to “The Town” to “Logan Lucky,” have gone before? Unless you believe that men possess some innate talent for sneakiness that women don’t, what could be more overdue? In “Ocean’s 8,” Debbie and her team come together and devise their jigsaw puzzle of a heist with an aplomb that feels as natural as it is crowd-pleasing.

That said, this is still, despite the freshness of the casting, the fourth “Ocean’s” film, and so the whole gathering-of-thieves storyline, and the sleight-of-hand fakery of the heist, doesn’t summon the rush of delighted surprise it once did. If anything, we’ve seen these sorts of movies once too often, and Gary Ross, the director and co-writer of “Ocean’s 8,” though he does a smooth job of keeping all the balls in the air, never conjures that Soderbergh sensation of taking this juggling act into the realm of gravity-defying virtuosity. The heist is fun and convincing without being dazzling, and some of the most amusing stuff in the film is just character comedy — like the deadpan joshing of Debbie and her old comrade-in-crime, Lou (Blanchett), or the attempt by Rose Weil (Carter), a flaked-out ‘80s relic of a fashion designer, to woo Daphne into allowing her to dress her for the Gala.

Rihanna, as a rasta-hatted hacker and surveillance wizard known as Nine Ball, and Awkwafina, as a master street grifter, both make their presence felt — they’ve got surly bravado to spare — but you wish that some of the other roles (in fact, most of them) popped a bit more. Sarah Paulson, as a cheery thief of a suburban mom, and even the great Cate Blanchett, so game for amoral games, don’t get a chance to create indelible characters. (They don’t get enough good lines.) Anne Hathaway, however, is commanding at every moment; even her red-carpet myopia has awareness. (Agencies)

By Lindsey Bahr

 

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