“Cate Blanchett’s Lou blatantly telegraphs as queer. Unfortunately, it’s never made explicit.”
Title: Ocean’s 8 (2018)
Director: Gary Ross 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Gary Ross 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Olivia Milch 👩🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
The premise of Ocean’s 8 reads like a Twitter campaign gone viral: Rihanna, Awkwafina, Mindy Kaling, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, and Sarah Paulson get together in a snazzy heist movie and rob the Met Gala blind. Naturally, their formidable star power is on show, as every actor enjoys if not equal screentime, then at least equally endearing characters. The actors’ performances buoy this otherwise derivative plot, and director Gary Ross knows how to milk it. Case in point: when the camera slowly panned up the fire-engine-red gown of Rihanna, the entire movie theater gave a collective gasp at how commanding she looked.
The film also plays up its unique positioning as a female ensemble within the almost exclusively male heist genre. This pent up demand, of seeing women in a stylish caper as more than just tits on legs, is given due respect as men are finally nudged—if just barely—off center. Instead, we follow the cool lead of Deb (Sandra Bullock) as she guides her delightful band of ultra-smart weirdos to mass riches.
Still, Ocean’s 8 isn’t by any stretch a “great movie”. The pacing stutters to a near-halt after its first act, relying on the chemistry and charm of its cast to stumble to the finish line (which it does, thanks to the talented women who carry it off). But when you’re treated to slick editing, a mischievous soundtrack, and way more laughs than you may have anticipated, what’s not to like?
I would have preferred a female director to helm the stories of eight powerful actresses, but Ross has a solid track record on scripting strong women. He wrote and directed the first Hunger Games chapter (released in 2012), and Pleasantville (1998) remains subversive, featuring a sex-positive Reese Witherspoon within the film’s larger takedown of rose-tinted nostalgia.
Ross’ writing partner, Olivia Milch, adds a welcome addition to the behind-camera talent, even if GradeMyMovie.com still knocks the film for not reaching parity in its its tally of director(s), writer(s), producer(s), and the first three actors listed on IMDB. Related or not, the onscreen depiction of gender isn’t quite perfect either. Manohla Dargis examines this in The New York Times, saying:
“[Ocean’s 8] includes an irritating subplot involving a very bad former lover. It’s needless narrative filler; worse, it dilutes the purity of the women’s work, their screen mission as it were.”
Luckily, the sheer force of having an all-women ensemble carries enough oomph to garner this category a 5/5. The inclusion of Deb’s ex-boyfriend does feel like a subconscious attempt to tug the film’s center back towards a male narrative, and Hathaway as the rich, It-girl Daphne does devolve into some generic honeypotting. But overall, I’ll overlook these quibbles in favor of the sheer breadth of space afforded women, with men firmly in supporting roles.
In the meantime, I await the day that female ensembles land in theaters without having to be reboots or “gender role-reversals”—and I’m definitely waiting for male critics to stop condescending to these films by billing them as “playing to the Bad Moms/Girls Trip/Bridesmaids crowd.” (None of the trailers that came packaged with the screening were remotely targeted to women, and the theater audience on a Saturday afternoon was easily split between men and women.) In the same Forbes article, Scott Mendelson even goes on to deign that “not only are women not box office poison, there is enough of an audience to justify more than one flick aimed at adult women per season.” Lucky us, I guess?
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 8% of key cast and crew members were POC.
Women of color are thankfully included, but they aren’t given the meatier roles. Those are handed to Deb, the main character and mastermind of the heist, or to Daphne as the lone soul to oversee any character development.
That said, I was genuinely impressed with how fresh each performance felt, even if they were generally flat with no backstories. It would have been easy to devolve into caricatures, but perhaps due to the talent level of those involved, each team member neatly side-steps cliché. A common pitfall of large, majority-white casts with few people of color (POC) is that white characters get to be defined by personality tics while POC are forced into cultural embodiments. We do see a bit of that with Amita, played by Mindy Kaling, whose mother just wants her to get married like her perfect sister (shown framed on the wall, beaming in her wedding saree). But more than that, Amita is a naive everywoman, starstruck by the attendees of the Met Gala, and a little in over her head but happy to follow the trail of multimillion-dollar diamonds.
Similarly, Constance—played by rapper Awkwafina, whose father is Chinese-American and mother is South Korean—is first introduced as a card shark in Chinatown. But her comedic timing, teenage slouch, and compulsive pickpocketing laughs in the face of the model minority myth that’s all too often assigned to East Asians.
Finally, I’ve seen grumbles on Twitter saying that Rihanna was underused in this film. But every actor besides Bullock and Hathaway is underused. There is way too much firepower in this cast for one mere movie to contain, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be a bad thing. In fact, the light footprint of the supporting actors just translates into the sense that each star is having fun with their respective cameos. In Rihanna’s case, she plays Nine Ball, a genius-level hacker with an equally talented younger sister. Not only does she break stereotype by being a tech nerd with dreadlocks, smoking an ever-present blunt, it’s doubly subversive as Ross and Rihanna embrace her Caribbean-inspired, 90s grunge look as if to say that intelligence has nothing to do with the way you look or dress. In an interview with IndieWire, Ross confirms the inclusive process of writing the characters:
“We both love Bob Marley, and I mentioned dreadlocks and [Rihanna] jumped up and down. Then we decided on a green army jacket draped over her. This is just different than Rihanna gets to be in most her public appearances, and she really loved all that.”
Cate Blanchett as club owner Lou blatantly telegraphs as queer. Unfortunately, it’s never made explicit. But the tells are plentiful, as Laura Bradley points out the most obvious ones:
“Debbie calls Lou, as she often does, her ‘partner’—and Lou replies, ‘I’m not your partner—yet.’ At another point, Lou teases Debbie, asking, ‘Oh, honey, is this a proposal?’ Debbie’s reply? ‘Baby, I don’t even have a diamond yet.’...Also, there’s that moment when they feed each other!”
Meanwhile, clothing has long been a major platform for queer subtext. Jill Gutowitz gives us her thoughts (alongside a hot-like-burning listicle of Blanchett’s outfits), saying:
“Like all queer women, I’m constantly disappointed by movies that don’t explicitly define obviously queer characters...With that being said, I am always happy to see any sort of representation for tomboyish women who straddle the line between the masculine and feminine.”
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.00/5
Ocean’s 8 celebrates women, the camera (mostly) avoids a male gaze, and its women of color are joyously sketched, even if they aren’t the drivers of the plot. But above all, this is not a film you should overthink. Just go and support women by seeing it in theaters. You’ll have an fantastic time, the comedic beats will surprise you with their effectiveness, and by the time the credits roll you’ll probably already be hankering for news about a sequel.
Although, hey, if Warner Bros. decides to forgo an “Ocean’s 9” and Netflix fills the void with the rumored Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o’s buddy heist film, you won’t hear me complaining.