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One of the many joys of Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of heist caper Ocean’s Eleven was the experience of watching an auteur, whose work had previously existed primarily in the independent sphere, take charge of a splashy, star-packed studio film. The crackling sexual tension and snappy dialogue of his 1998 thriller Out of Sight gave us a clue that he would be a steady hand with such material but still, his ability to deliver such a dizzyingly entertaining blockbuster on such a large scale came as a warm surprise.
The razzle-dazzle was starting to dim by the time Ocean’s Thirteen was released in 2007 but Soderbergh’s confident direction was a swaggering force that lifted the franchise even in its silliest moments. Cut to 11 years later and the format is being refreshed, rebooted, retooled and remixed with key changes in front and behind of the camera. Soderbergh has retreated, with just a producer’s credit, and he’s been replaced in the director’s chair by Gary Ross, whose uneven career has careered from Pleasantville to Seabiscuit to The Hunger Games to Free State of Jones. While he boasts experience with big names and big budgets, artfulness and anything resembling audacity aren’t closely associated with his work and having been spoiled by Soderbergh’s eye, we inevitably approach Ocean’s 8 with caution.
But in front of the camera, there’s far less to worry about.
In a nifty, if increasingly familiar, update, the all-male crew has been gender-swapped and there’s a tantalizing cast onboard with three Oscar winners, one Oscar nominee, one Grammy winner, one Emmy winner, one SAG award winner and one rising star all teaming up. The connection to the previous series is familial with Sandra Bullock playing Debbie Ocean, the sister to her Gravity co-star George Clooney’s now-deceased Danny Ocean. The film begins as she is released from prison after a five-year stint, insisting that her return to the outside world will be boringly normal, a far cry from her previous life as a con artist.
Within minutes however, she’s back to her old tricks: lying, cheating, stealing and reuniting with her old partner in crime Lou (Cate Blanchett). Debbie has a plan, one that she’s been working on every day that she’s been inside, and it will require the pair to assemble a team of specialists. Together they recruit a weed-smoking hacker (Rihanna), an emotionally fragile fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter), a maternally smothered jeweler (Mindy Kaling), a street-smart pickpocket (Awkwafina) and one of Debbie’s former partners (Sarah Paulson). The target is movie star Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), or more specifically the Cartier necklace they will persuade her to wear before stealing it while she attends the Met Gala, arguably New York’s hottest event of the year.
It sounds like a blast and at times, during the first act it almost is, but while great care has been taken in populating the film with infinitely talented performers, there’s been less attention paid to the pros behind the scenes. While Ocean’s Eleven glided through its many sharp set pieces, Ocean’s 8 inelegantly plods. The smoothness of Soderbergh’s concoction, often smug yet mostly rather charming, has been replaced with a bland impersonality, the work of a disinterested hired hand. Snappy, playful camerawork and a deft David Holmes score are sorely missed as Ross fills his film with plainly shot montages of superficial luxury that fail to feel quite as sumptuous as they should.
We know the format at play here and the script, co-written by Ross with up-and-coming screenwriter Olivia Milch, struggles to lend a fresh tone to the formula. Despite the comic skills of the cast, there’s a noticeable lack of wit, a glaring hole in place of the back-and-forth banter from its predecessor. So many scenes feel a couple of drafts away from flying despite best intentions of the cast.
Bullock remains a magnetic screen presence and she tries her darnedest with featherlight characterization but her knack for comedy is left underexplored. Like the crew members who surround her, she’s not really allowed much more depth than just her criminal skill. Everyone is defined by their job rather than their personality. Rihanna isn’t given anything interesting to do outside of her laptop, Bonham Carter is a collection of overplayed tics, Hathaway has some fun vamping it up and, regrettably, Blanchett is particularly underserved, her actions mostly perfunctory. There are also brief flashes of brilliance from Awkwafina (who is set to steal this summer’s Crazy Rich Asians) but again, the script doesn’t feed her with the moments she needs to really soar.
The film keeps threatening to loosen up and allow the women the freedom to recreate the fun, hangout vibe that made Soderbergh’s film such a rush, but there’s a glaring incompetency here in Ross bringing such talents together and not knowing what the hell to do with them. After building up to the main event, there’s a vague hope that things will finally sing during the heist. But instead of being smart and surprising, it’s sloppy and predictable. Whenever the crew encounters a problem that might bring some much-needed tension, it’s fixed within seconds. The suspense evaporates, and so does our investment.
The lifeless direction, the unrefined script, the underwhelming cameos, the distinct lack of fizz – there’s a slapdash nature to the assembly of Ocean’s 8 that makes it feel like the result of a rushed, often careless process. It’s made watchable thanks to the cast but star power alone cannot mask creative inadequacy. Stealing a diamond necklace is bad but wasting an opportunity like this is unforgivable.
- Ocean’s 8 is released in the US on 8 June and in the UK on 18 June
Source: The Guardian
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