Has there been a director with a weirder descent into journeyman hell than Gary Ross? A former screenwriter (Big, Dave), it seemed for a brief moment — right after the release of his utterly brilliant first feature Pleasantville, which summed up so much about a particular moment in cultural history that it’s nearly a thesis on how we processed pop culture in the ’90s — that Ross might have had some true chops. Then followed the awards-baity Seabiscuit, which attracted the kind of middling praise reserved for would-be Oscar contenders, and a string of mediocre heavily-budgeted releases: The Hunger Games, where Francis Lawrence taking over on the sequels for once actually improved a franchise, and the instantly forgettable Free State of Jones.
Now, he’s doing his best Steven Soderbergh impression with Ocean’s 8, a soft reboot of the weirdly-beloved franchise, and Ross somehow manages to take an inspired germ of an idea — breaking up the Rat-Pack chauvinism by centering the heist around a group of women — and turn it into the most bland possible final product.
The opening frames of Ocean’s 8 are a none-too-subtle callback to the start of Soderbergh’s first foray in the series: Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sitting in a prison jumpsuit, hears questions from the parole board against a white prison wall. We never see the men and women deciding her ultimate fate, but we do focus on her, long enough to know that she’s burying the truth within a heavy lie. She’s desperate to leave jail, her brother having passed away in the midst of her five-year plus sentence, and she’s outlined a job that she wants to do both in his memory and to get some quick-ass cash.
Her plan is to hit the Met Gala, where the world’s rich and famous pretend they give a shit about the arts and about fashion, and also being the one place where “a him gets noticed, and a her gets ignored”: In order to steal one of the world’s most valuable necklaces. It’ll be worn around the neck of actress Daphne Kluger (a fun Anne Hathaway), a vain but generally agreeable sort of mark who may have her sympathies aline with someone other than you might expect. Along with her longtime friend and confident Lou (Cate Blanchett), she’ll need to assemble a team, comprised of an assortment of specialists — the fence (Sarah Paulson), the jeweler (Mindy Kaling), the designer (Helena Bonham Carter), the hacker (Rihanna), and the pickpocket (Awkwafina) — in order to do the job and to get revenge on the asshole (Richard Armitage) who put her in prison to begin with.
Sounds pretty fun, right?
I wish I could tell you that it’s better than it actually is. The cast performs admirably, but they’re too stuck in the Soderbergh mold to do anything truly of note: Blanchett and Bullock are forced to do that neurotic talk-heavy dialogue that was a heirloom of Clooney and Pitt’s in the trilogy, and they’re also limited by a screenplay, penned by Ross and Olivia Milch, that never manages to find the right rhythm for their quips and their exposition. They’re not bad, they’re just not given anything to do, and Blanchett is largely off-screen for much of the back-half of the film, though Bullock is given a few stray moments to shine (and to test out her German) once the heist itself is in progress.
Others fare significantly better — Kaling gets a sight gag so perfect and ridiculous that I wish the whole film had been like that, and Awkwafina brings some decent alt-comedy stylings to the fray — but they’re all held back by the pacing and the structure. Just look at how oddly the film handles its last half-hour, well after the heist has concluded and people have already started reaching for their bags and their empty popcorn bags. We’re introduced to Insurance Fraud Agent James Corden, who spends those precious last minutes being deliriously unfunny, while also sucking valuable time away from what should be the film’s prestige (in the magic sense, not in the royalty sense). So, the twists and turns are so spread out that they don’t have any real effect, and a last-minute cameo has the weird effect of diluting the efficacy of the new team.
Most of this is the setting’s fault, as the Met Gala is misused, propositioned more as a celebrity Where’s Waldo than a genuine staging ground for hijinks, and the stakes are never concretely established like they were in Soderbergh’s first outing. Remember the montage of folks who almost made it out the door, chips and cash in hand, only to be tackled and hauled off to prison or, worse, shot in the back? There’s nothing like that here, so it remains kind of nebulous, and ultimately boils down to “will they get paid or won’t they?” If the Met’s defining feature seems to be its celebrity presence, why even bother having things on display, and why bother using the Met, with all of its splendor, as a setting?
As such, Ocean’s 8 winds up feeling like a bit like a Conde Nast take on Mac and Me, with the Met Gala’s red carpet being the McDonalds dance sequence and Anna Wintour’s requisite cameo feeling like, you guessed it, Ronald McDonald’s touted appearance in that film (this is also made even more outrageous by the overall abundance of product placement in the film: My notes eventually just boiled down to writing down as many brand names as I possibly could, and I nearly filled up a whole page). Even the chances for metatextual lampshading, such as having Rihanna, the Queen of the Met Gala herself, as a character in the film are misused and otherwise ignored outside of a single cursory shot. If you’re going to suggest the possibility of some Ocean’s Twelve insanity in your casting, it might be worthwhile to follow up on it.
Anyways, buried between the exposition-filled screen wipes and the remixed version of “These Boots (Are Made For Walking)” that is, admittedly, better than the “A Little Less Conversation” remix used in the original, there’s a fun and witty film wanting to break out. Ross tries to pick up where Soderbergh left off by pushing the tone directly into broad comedy, and it mostly works, even if the gags aren’t all that funny. There are a few jewels — a former Vatican security agent, tasked with guarding the necklace, is described by the gang as “having never lost a Pope,” Bullock gets to poke fun at the film’s defining feature in an unexpectedly blunt way, the aforementioned Kaling sight gag — but at least it’s an attempt to get out from under the first film’s shadow.
I hope Ocean’s 8 does well at the box office (and based on the line to get into my screening and the reactions of those that did, it will be a huge hit) mainly because I’d like to see this ensemble work again with a more interesting filmmaker (We’ll always have Pleasantville, Mr. Ross) in a different setting, one that full manages to escape the burden of its predecessors’ influence not unlike its leading ladies escape from the clutches of the law.
Ocean’s 8 hits theaters on June 8.
Featured image by Barry Wetcher for Warner Bros. Pictures.