' ' Cinema Romantico: Ocean's 8

Monday, June 25, 2018

Ocean's 8

The original “Ocean’s 11” (1960) had a plot in so far as it provided an excuse for its Rat Pack stars to congregate on screen and have boozy fun. Steven Soderbergh’s eventual remake (2001), and its superior sequel  “Ocean’s Twelve” (2004), took far more concern in the narrative particulars of their respective heists yet still ensured the stories functioned as a platform for their various charismatic stars to glow. In “Ocean’s 8”, however, director Gary Ross puts considerable thought into his story, and how his stars figure into that story, but not, exactly, what those stars do. And since “Ocean’s 8” is the first all-female crack at this heretofore mostly male series, this oversight comes to feel more akin to an insult; such an impressive octet of stars deserved their own opportunities to glow.

The trouble begins immediately. Sandra Bullock’s eventual heist ringleader Debbie Ocean is in jail but up for parole. She has to talk her way out, a la Red Redding, and so she does. But the monologue itself is oddly dis-engaging. Bullock excels at sort of tumbling comically through monologues in such a way that you are never quite sure she is going to find her way through to the other side. Here, however, the writing is cool and calculated, which does not play to the actor’s strength. It’s like asking Corin Tucker to sing a cover of “Justify My Love”; she could manage a spoken whisper, I’m sure, but why wouldn’t you call on her to scream?

In any event, once sprung Debbie seeks out of her old crime-loving cohort Lou (Cate Blanchett), and together they assemble a crew of six additional ne’er-do-wells to pilfer a necklace being worn by a narcissistic actress named Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) at the Met Gala. If this is a money-making enterprise, it is also a larcenous homage to Debbie’s deceased gentleman thief brother, Danny, the George Clooney character of the Soderbergh films, a self-reference that “Ocean’s 8” never really invests it with much juice, rendering it superfluous branding. This scheme also works as a bit of score-settling with Debbie’s ex.

Her ex is such a zero that I failed to recall either his character’s name or the actor playing him without consulting IMDb (Claude Becker played by Richard Armitage) which makes you wonder why he is there in the first place. If it is commentary on female characters in similar cinematic situations typically being under-written arm candy, fair enough, but he just inadvertently runs interference on the film’s real slow burn love story. That’s the one between Debbie and Lou which, to be clear, is not really a love story, with a beginning, middle, and end, but occasional bouts of subtextual sexual tension glimpsed not just in their flirtatiously caustic banter but in physical interactions like Debbie playfully shoving a forkful of food into Lou’s mouth. That this just lingers in the air is perhaps Hollywood tent pole entertainment refusing to Go There, though it also might be a not unwelcome refusal to indulge in the Male Gaze. Either way, there is such a spark in these peripheral bits of behavioral business that you wish the movie had moved it more to the foreground.

“Ocean’s 8” at least finds little ways to skewer our male-centric Earthly model with Debbie explaining that no men are allowed in their crew because dudes, as she says, “get noticed” whereas women remain invisible. You never see this better than Rihanna’s hacker Nine Ball briefly going incognito as a janitor to infiltrate a boardroom to plant a bug. She gets a few odd looks from the whites-only conference table, where both her gender and race make for her disguise as much as her uniform. But then, while this might be socially astute, it is also accidentally emblematic of how the movie repeatedly dampens Rihanna’s singularity.

Whether Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, normally an unequaled verbal fount strangely reduced to mostly standing or sitting around, etc., the actors only matter in terms of what the script has them doing in any given frame in preparing for or carrying out the heist. In other words, too often anyone could be playing these parts. Blanchett might fare well in terms of costume design, sporting an array of suits that all on their own should garner an Oscar nomination, but not as well when it comes to dialogue. Why did no one think to write her any lines? In a scene at what appears to be a Subway sandwich shop, as Awkwafina’s Constance checks out the fixings bar, the camera looks up through the glass partition at Lou looking back at so much shredded lettuce and cucumbers, an expression that Blanchett laces with a kind of heightened curiosity, one seeming to wonder “What am I doing here exactly?”

Anne Hathaway is the only actor not boxed in by the material, specifically because her character is written as comically vainglorious with comically vainglorious lines, giving her something to play and something to play to. It’s an elementary world of difference. It’s as if somewhere in the space of Daphne Kluger is the movie “Ocean’s 8” wanted to be. Maybe it could have been; maybe “Ocean’s 8” should have taken place in Daphne Kluger’s alternate universe with her in the starring role.

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