Wednesday, June 13, 2018

But I'm looking even more forward to Ocean's One, which will just be a really flashy, really fun liquor store robbery


Heist flicks typically don't have extended fourth acts for a very good reason, as Ocean's Eight demonstrates; but those first three acts are such a great time at the movies that it doesn't matter as much as it should.

Directed by Gary Ross
Written by Olivia Milch and Gary Ross
With Sandra Bullock (Debbie Ocean), Cate Blanchett (Lou), Mindy Kaling (Amita), Helena Bonham Carter (Rose Weil), Sarah Paulson (Tammy), Nora Lum Ying (Constance), Rihanna ("Nine Ball"), Anne Hathaway (Daphne Kluger), James Corden (John Frazier), and Richard Armitage (Claude Becker)

Spoiler alert: mild, but that asterisked footnote does contain a somewhat severe spoiler

There was, I thought, no really compelling reason for Ocean's Eight to be an Ocean's movie in the first place, inasmuch as an Ocean's movie with a completely different, now all-female* (and you can pretty much just say "gender-swapped") cast is, well, just a heist movie, which is perfectly fine—Ocean's Eleven is "just a heist movie" too, albeit one operating at an extremely high level of both narrative craft and filmmaking style—and calling it Ocean's Eight instead of, say, Sandy Bullock Steals Your Diamonds was only ever going to invite comparisons that may or may not be to this film's actual benefit.  (Though, at the very least, we can be relieved that it seems to have completely escaped the Internet abyss opened up by the like of Lady Ghostbusters and, to a slightly lesser extent, the new Star Wars episodes and Fury Road—which, seriously, only used Max in the exact same way Road Warrior and Thunderdome already had—but this is presumably because the fanbase of the Ocean's films is constituted of a far lower percentage of self-described incels and Nazi cucks.)

Anyway, now that I've seen Ocean's Eight, I'm not much closer to resolving whether my first impression was wrong: on the one hand, by being a sidequel to the Ocean's series, it defuses any real complaint you could've made about its screenplay being a very, very direct riff on Ocean's Eleven, job within a job and the leader of the gang motivated by an ex and everything; on the other, while it only very marginally carves out its own identity, it does carve out its own place, and one that has no need to make reference to any Ocean's Cinematic Universe (Matt Damon opening his yap about Me Too and getting his cameo cut turned out to be a godsend for the movie).  Pity that it keeps up this happy situation only until the moment that it smashes right into its forebears in perhaps the most scowl-inducingly unsatisfactory way it possibly could.  Substantively, then, about the only positive thing it gets out of its connection is a decent running joke about Danny Ocean, our chief thief's brother, being (probably not) dead, without actually buttoning that joke with a cameo punchline.

And so we find George Clooney's distaff counterpart where we first found him, back at the beginning of his misadventures: namely, in prison, and Debbie—that's Bullock—sets the tone by doing a much better job at pretending to be reformed while talking her way out of incarceration, after which she meets back up with Brad Pitt—that is, Cate Blanchett's Lou—who's doing more-or-less what Pitt was doing when Clooney got out of the clink, wasting her particular set of skills on a mediocre hustle.  Debbie arrives with a plan, of course: to steal the Touissant, a necklace packed with diamonds each the size of a child's fist and worth a cool $150 million, from the Met Gala.  She'll need to get a whole lot of plates spinning in the air to do it, however—for starters, arranging it so the third member of their crew, down-on-her-luck designer Rose Weil, is dressing their hand-picked mark, actress Daphne Kluger, who'll need to be wearing the necklace, and that its actual owners, Cartier, will even lend them the diamonds in the first place.

It really is that kind of heist, and even more so than usual, frankly: a heist where god-tier thieves control every aspect of a micromanaged-to-hell-and-back situation, and do it with a steely panache.  It equals its predecessors, in this regard at least.  Consider: Danny never had to convince Andy Garcia to put the money in the vault for him.  (Your mileage may vary on which movie has the more deserving targets,  however, depending on whether you favor violent casino magnates or sneering cosmopolitan snobs.  Ask yourself, who would you rather your far-more-attractive stand-in to rob, Steve Wynn or the editor of the NYT style section?  But you're in luck, for now we have stories about both!)

In the process of their subterfuge, Debbie and Lou pick up another four co-conspirators for their fancy-dress dungeon dive, largely from the character classes you'd expect: Sarah Paulson's Tammy (an infiltrator, i.e. Carl Reiner and/or Bernie Mac, but temperamentally closer to the former); Nora Lum Ying's Constance (a quick-handed pickpocket, i.e. Matt Damon); Mindy Kaling's Amita (a jeweler, i.e. Don Cheadle, I guess, although "Cheadle whittled some explosives into the shape of some emeralds" does admittedly make it seem like I'm stretching my premise too far); and Rihanna's Nine Ball (a hacker, i.e., um, so not everybody in Ocean's Eleven was actually famous, though now I feel like I'm being mean to Eddie Jemison for no good reason).

Most everyone in Eight is famous, however, even including the extras—and while Ying is more like "allegedly famous" to me, it's conceivable that I might just be old—and so, accepting "everyone is someone" as a given, there's certainly no better choice made here than the decision to have a lower, and much more manageable, number of characters than the previous Ocean's movies.  The result is still the Sandra Bullock show, make no mistake, probably more than Eleven was Clooney's—and I'm certainly not complaining, because Bullock's Debbie is both better-motivated and quite possibly more likeable than Clooney's Danny, despite almost certainly being objectively meaner—but Eight shines a little brighter than its progenitor in its overall ensemble, too, allowing its seven-going-on-eight criminals a lot more space to breathe and interact and be genuinely charming as characters, rather than banking absolutely entirely upon those characters' actors' sheer movie star appeal.  Not that movie star is appeal is missing, obviously: with its well-cast constellation, Eight does everything right on this count, without anybody ever needing to try even remotely hard—for it is, after all, an Ocean's movie, and "not trying too hard" does sound pretty much exactly right.

Everyone on the cast list below Bullock with an established type plays to it, then: Helena Bonham Carter (our eligible, non-Bullock MVP) plays a flighty bundle of nerves and sadness; Mindy Kaling naturally plays a spaz, even when her Amita-as-written isn't; Anne Hathaway plays a self-absorbed celebrity who suggests the movie was partly able to attract so many great actresses because one of its most noticeable themes is that self-absorbed celebrities aren't complete fucking idiots; Cate Blanchett plays a woman who knows that, somehow, she's grown more beautiful and glamorous at 49 than she was at 29, and therefore (much as she did in both Manifesto and Thor: Ragnarok) takes the path of least resistance and consents to being mostly an interesting hairdo and sense of swagger in leather pants, but (unlike in Ragnarok) doesn't also fail to give us a memorable performance on her character's merits, as Debbie's worn-out better angel, alongside a fair smidgen of lesbian coding for both of them (almost entirely confirmed by the winky dialogue) that wouldn't seem too out of place in the 60s cinema the Ocean's series is always, always hearkening back to.  (Now, it might go without saying that Soderbergh hearkened back betterEleven's composer David Holmes sure as hell did it better with his jazzily-omnipresent scoring than Eight's composer Daniel Pemberton does with his anemic elevator music, and let's not even compare it to the bombast of Holmes's score for Twelve—but give director Gary Ross and especially his editor Juliette Welfling this much, they've aped Soderbergh's style successfully enough to play, and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art is both automatically more interesting-looking than a casino or its vault, and the gala it hosts is automatically populated with more interesting-looking, and interestingly-costumed, human beings.)

So it's fun and very funny, to the point of being rather close to an avowed comedy, and while the jokes offer more along the lines of a constant nodding chuckle than outright laughs, it's almost certainly better off that way—Ocean's Eight is a movie with its priorities straight.  The screenplay is genuinely great at the level of character and tone; it feels loose and improvisational, and, as it never actually is, it's essentially everything you could want out of a caper as frothy as this one.  (Happily, the light entertainment is also content to be feminist mostly by being a showcase for living and breathing women with a lot of talent.  Only a couple of lines try to hard-sell it; they have a flawlessly bimodal success rate.)  The script likewise does such a fine job of laying out Debbie's dual goals that it's only the smallest disappointment that Debbie's secondary mission, to avenge herself upon Julia Roberts and Andy Garcia alike, finds its actual target only in a certain Richard Armitage, he being another allegedly-famous person, and one who doesn't come off nearly as cleanly as Ying.  In every scene he's in, Armitage feels like an appendix to the movie—perhaps a placeholder they hired to run through lines with Bullock and Hathaway until an actor who had charisma (or at least some basic screen presence) came along, but, unfortunately, no one ever did.  It would of course be more of a disappointment if Armitage's character were intended to matter.  Since he doesn't, though, this weakness is relatively easily forgiven.

Our heist movie script also gives us a pretty good heist plot, too, somewhat weighed down with unnecessary contrivances, and brazenly continuing the Ocean's tradition of wedging arcane super-science into the story, but rather good all the same...

...Right up until the moment, that is, that the movie ought to have ended, which is about thirty minutes before it does.  As a pure structural exercise, and all heist movies are structural exercises in their heart of hearts, Ocean's Eight becomes mildly awful: it clears out its whole, three-act, tell-then-show, loving-it-when-the-plan-comes-together plot, but still has a lot of runtime left, which it uses to distend the optional flourish of its but-what-you-saw-isn't-what-you-really-saw! epilogue into a full-blown fourth act of its own; in doing so, it's really hard to name any other caper film that so blithely downshifts its machine, dropping almost every bit of the momentum it had built up before.  It feels like a whole new movie begins—somewhat literally, as it deigns to introduce a whole new character, who then spends about fifteen minutes being this whole new film's whole new protagonist—but the mere idea of it, to turn our attention to the investigation of the preposterous heist we've just watched, is already an extremely dubious one in itself, for it gives us a lot of time to decompress, and to start asking some hard questions about what we've seen.  That Ocean's Eight has holes isn't a grievous sin.  That Ocean's Eight allows you to start thinking about them, while it's still on, very much is.

Without its wheezing conclusion, Ocean's Eight is a genuinely fantastic heist film, pretty much exactly what this summer's been needing—and, to its credit, when it finally does end, it ends strong, with an affectionate gesture toward its lovely characters that I just couldn't help being charmed by (even if only one of them appears to have dreams even remotely commensurate with the magnitude of what they've just accomplished).  It's honestly just too bad that with that last half hour, the main thing that Ocean's Eight accomplishes in its longeurs is keeping you pinned uncomfortably in your seat, rather than sending you immediately out into the world, dizzy and spinning with the fizzy pleasure of everything else it had been, not too long before.

Score:  7/10

*The thing is, this is actually a lie, and, bound up as it is in its extended fourth-act exposition dump, there's no graver mistake than the one Ocean's Eight makes than when it relies upon a deus ex machina that plainly did not exist in this movie, until the very moment Ross and co-screenwriter Olivia Milch decided to toss him directly at the audience, apparently expecting us to gratefully catch him.

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