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Film & Television

Opportunity wasted in ‘Ocean’s 8’

By Anwen Crawford
The female-led blockbuster is a squandered chance to better represent women on screen

Just about the first thing that Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) does upon her release from prison at the outset of Ocean’s 8 is to go steal cosmetics. Alright, so she’s nicking stuff from Bergdorf Goodman, the posh New York department store, but nevertheless it’s as if the makers of this movie wanted to prove at the start just how low the stakes are. Ocean’s 8 is supposedly a heist film, and a heist film is supposed to be a showcase for crime raised to the level of art: a bank robbery executed with the choreographic precision of Balanchine; a museum theft so ingenious you wish you’d thought of it first. Pocket a lipstick? I can do that any day.

An all-woman blockbuster should be an open goal for any Hollywood director right now. People are fed up, and rightly so, with the systemic misogyny of the commercial film industry. The woeful statistics on women’s speaking roles in and technical contributions to that industry’s output are but one part of the evidence against it. Ocean’s 8 – directed by Gary Ross, who wrote the Tom Hanks body-swap comedy Big (1988) and directed The Hunger Games (2012) – should arrive as a sisterly counterpart to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, which itself began as a remake of the classic Rat Pack heist flick Ocean’s 11 (1960). Farewell, Sinatra! Bye-bye, Clooney! It’s time for the ladies to play smooth criminals, and maybe kick a few bad men to the kerb along the way. I’d pay to watch that, frankly, but not this: a film that flubs the zeitgeist like a striker shooting gracelessly wide of the net. 

The script is woeful: eight leading parts and not a single memorable character; every actor squandered. Bullock and Cate Blanchett play the ringleaders, which means little, apart from the fact that they get enviable makeup and wardrobe for every scene. Helena Bonham Carter, as a has-been fashion designer, reprises the kind of frizzy-haired, screw-brained part that Tim Burton already wasted her in for years, only this time with less verve. Rihanna is required to dim her superstar wattage in the role of a dressed-down computer hacker, who tucks her dreadlocks beneath a rastacap. Oh yes, it’s a pleasingly “diverse” cast, so long as you can overlook that kind of stereotyping. Mindy Kaling gets to play a shrewish diamond broker who still lives at home with her Indian parents. How progressive.

The burglary scheme involves not one but two heavily guarded institutions, the Metropolitan Museum and Cartier, brought together in this instance by the annual Met Gala, which, we are reminded several times, constitutes the most prestigious party in the world. Ocean and co. are conspiring to steal a $150 million Cartier diamond necklace from the neck of a Gala invitee, Daphne Kluger, played by Anne Hathaway, who tries her best, as does Bullock, to wring some comedy out of proceedings, but can only do so much. Each time the script threatens to pay proper attention to the details of the heist itself, and therefore to satisfy one’s expectations of the genre – security cameras, alarms, guards, gadgets, what have you – it fudges. I can almost see some studio suit writing at the top of every page: This film is aimed at women! Who don’t like technical thingamies! So let’s give them another clumsily disguised ad for the Met Gala. Anna Wintour, Vogue editor-in-chief and principal architect of the Gala’s guest list, even gets a cameo appearance. If Ocean’s 8 were any more blatant in its appeal to the assumed interests of female viewers, tickets would come with a Condé Nast subscription offer.

Not long after the credits finally rolled on this cynical exercise in demographic box-ticking, I got to thinking about Thelma & Louise (1991), as a reminder to myself that Hollywood can, on occasion, turn out a thrilling film about women becoming criminal and seeming to enjoy it, because they had reason to. Then there’s Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson, The Big Heat’s Debby Marsh and The KillersKitty Collins, among a whole long list of femmes fatales and noir anti-heroines and all-round nasty gals. Hell, even Julia Roberts as Tess Ocean in Soderbergh’s version of Ocean’s Eleven (2001) got more chance to shine than any of the women here. Bullock shoplifting from Bergdorf Goodman might be a play on Tony Bergdorf, the crack electrician in the original Ocean’s 11 played by Richard Conte, though I’m not sure I should credit the screenwriters of Ocean’s 8 with so much wit. This is what results when calls for the better representation of women on screen are met in letter but not in spirit; “representation” means zilch when the effort is so rote and grudging. The joke is on us.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

© Warner Bros.

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