The Pros and Cons of 'Ocean's 8'

Eisner-nominated comic book writer Alex de Campi and THR contributor Simon Abrams debate the if dumb fun is enough for the 'Ocean's Eleven' spinoff.
Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros.
Eisner-nominated comic book writer Alex de Campi and THR contributor Simon Abrams debate the if dumb fun is enough for the 'Ocean's Eleven' spinoff.

[This story contains spoilers for Ocean's 8]

The following is a spoiler-intensive conversation about the new all-lady heist caper Ocean's 8 that was held through emails by Eisner-nominated comics writer Alex de Campi and The Hollywood Reporter contributor Simon Abrams. The film's ensemble cast includes Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Cate Blanchett, Awkwafina, and Sandra Bullock. Also, James Corden? Huh, OK. Ocean's 8 is a hit, with it opening bigger than the three George Clooney-led Ocean's films.

This conversation goes to eleven, so get ready for some rhetorical firewor ks.

Simon Abrams, Duke Anderson Tapehead: I saw a film today, oh boy.

OK, fine, Ocean's 8 wasn't that bad. It wasn't that good either. It was Gary Ross fine: better than The Hunger Games, worse than Seabiscuit.

And I'm out! 

I wish. I don't have a lot invested in the success or failure of Ocean's 8, which neither improves nor detracts from my opinion. I also can't say that the gender of our protagonists isn't cartoonishly over-emphasized for effect. The film relies heavily on stereotypes — The mommy-dominated spinster in training! The ditzy has-been! The sorta androgynous tomboy! The street-wise jokester! And the cool, blue-collar ethnic type that they're too scared to do something with! — but, as The New Yorker's Richard Brody points out of those cliches: "The movie toys with stereotypes that it seems to mock but also silently depends on." If I were in a more cynical mood, I'd say that the makers of Ocean's 8 wanted ally brownie points, but weren't smart enough to earn them. But eh, the film isn't that phony. There's nothing in this perfectly inoffensive film to suggest that its makers don't care about their protagonists. The performances are all varying degrees of fine. Anne Hathaway is, as many have pointed out, exceptional, possibly because she gets a prominent role that requires her to look both cool and neurotic. Most of the other actresses have to choose one or the other.

Still, Brody is characteristically on it when he writes about the film's final scene as an act of ho-hum wish fulfillment. He says: "The dream, and promise, of independence fits slyly into the story of Ocean’s 8, which includes a clever epilogue about how the women use the money that they get from—it’s no spoiler—pulling off the heist. All of the actresses in Ocean’s 8 need movies of their own, in which they can give free rein to their experiences, their talents, and their points of view. And if Ocean’s 8 is the long-plotted means to that end, so be it." I'm with him: I don't begrudge this film its modest successes. But I also don't feel like ferreting them out either. They're there, glistening on the surface. The outfits. The bait-and-switch reversals of fortune. The familiar putting-on-a-show stock plot. The location shooting (Wooo, Veselka and Junior's!). It's fine. Everything is fine.

So what'd you see today, anything good?

Alex de Campi, Corey’s Foolproof Plan: I grinned like an absolute loon the whole way through this movie. I loved it. I loved everyone in it. I thought it was delightful. Is it mind-bendingly original? No. Does it hew closely to the Ocean's template of a really good, intricate heist done by charming, stylish people with a fun last-minute twist? Yep. It’s fun popcorn entertainment that gets things right that movies so often don’t: fashion and celebrity. 

And sure, there are stereotypes, but I think the film plays against them in clever ways. The Asian-American character (Akwkwafina in the role of Constance, terrific, more of her, Hollywood!) is the streetwise hustler. And seeing a Black woman with a Caribbean accent and dreads (Rihanna, playing Nine Ball, also magnificent) presented as the clever-with-computers one was awesome. Nine Ball didn’t have to act white or pass in Caucasian culture to be good at what she did, and that’s real and important. Plus the surprise delight of Nathanya Alexander as Veronica, Nine Ball’s little genius sister! And Serena Williams on the Met Gala carpet, being the gracious queen of sport she is. Sure, call it ally points if you will, but Ocean's 8 did it, without stopping to congratulate itself along the way as so many would. I don’t see a lot of other movies doing it so GOOD and YES and MORE. It also doesn’t pretend anti-blackness doesn’t exist: Debbie Ocean’s (Sandra Bullock, you know, the lead character) first reaction to Nine Ball is not positive at all. And Mindy Kaling being adorable and in charge!

Really, I have so much good will towards all the female actors in this film. Seeing Helena Bonham-Carter as Rose was like seeing an old friend. I’ve always had a soft spot for Anne Hathaway and she’s perfectly cast here. Cate Blanchett, whose leather and velvet and satin wardrobe was handed down from Lesbian Jesus specifically for the enjoyment of gayelles everywhere! And everybody nailed their roles. 

I do think the film is cleverer about race and about women in general than you give it credit for, but maybe it’s something I only notice as a female viewer. Debbie Ocean has a great comment about not bringing a man into the con because men are noticed, and women are invisible. It’s so true, especially for women of colour. The way Nine Ball gets ignored when she pretends to be a cleaner. Awkwafina passing unnoticed as a waitress. And then of course Debbie’s low level scams, which rely on her status as a white woman to behave badly and not be questioned. I remember breaking into a friend’s car with her once in a store parking lot; she’d locked her keys inside. Both of us are white. Other white people came over to HELP. You can bet that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t white. Likewise, imagine Debbie’s little getting-on-my-feet-again heists if she weren’t white. 

I feel at this point like I’m making too big a deal about these aspects of the film because now I’m making it sound worthy, and it’s not that film (e.g. it’s not Crash, thankfully). I remember once having sailing tactics explained to me as, “if you think the left side of the course is favored, you don’t have to go all the way left. You just have to go more left than everyone else.” That’s all the film does. It is a fun, jolly heist film with good clothes and great performances, that just takes one step further to the left than the rest of the pack (not hard, in the current glut of women-in-refrigerators films). I see that step, and I’m happy for it, but the film isn't ultimately about that. It’s about crime, and female friendship, and a bunch of women with high-key skills whose men, if they even have them, if they even are into men, aren’t even mentioned. Sarah Paulson’s character Tammy is happily married, but her husband doesn’t have a single line, and never appears on screen. Apparently Matt Damon had a scene but he ended up on the cutting room floor

Women don’t get to be heroes. We get to be supporting characters, or love interests. There’s that whole Joseph Campbell thing about the woman not needing a hero’s journey because she’s already there, she’s the hero’s destination, and here is this magical fun little film where Princess Peach saves herself and then embarks on a life of crime and I am 100 percent here for it.  

Simon, the Pink Panther: I really wish I shared your passion for this one, because honestly, the only thing I feel compelled to argue with you about this film is how fine it is. It is fine! All fine! Not bad, not great—fine! I do not begrudge you your enjoyment!

I'd be curious to hear more about how the film got fashion and celebrity right, but let's start with the feminist conceits that you mentioned. I get what you're saying, but tend to agree with Brody when he says that the stereotypes are simultaneously laughed at and relied on. You see a low-key critique of white privilege, and I see a self-aware, by-committee acknowledgment of ideas about class and race thatare also kinda tacitly condoned. I thought Awkwafina got some good lines, but was mostly bored by Kaling and Rihanna's characters. If Debbie's disapproval of Rihanna's blunt-smoking was more than just an empty, under-developed conceit, it'd be mentioned in a later scene. Or acknowledged somehow following that encounter. Ditto with the service roles that Awkwafina and Kaling play in the film: they are able to rip people off because people don't expect anything from them, but they also don't get to solve problems in a way that proves they're more than just Debbie's set-it-and-forget-it backup team.

I don't give Ross and his co-creators major points for this — nor do I think that they deserve strenuous criticism — because I think this is just a way for them to have their cake and eat it too. These writers and directors do not do subtlety. Remember Pleasantville? Or the first — and worst — Hunger Games movie? Or Seabiscuit? If Ross and the gang have an idea, they will highlight it in bold, italicized caps. You can see that (relatively benign) lack of story-telling confidence in the scene where Debbie and Lou are having Chinese food as Debbie recalls how she used a make-shift shiv to threaten her deplorably self-involved ex-boyfriend Claude Becker (Richard Armitage). First we get the moment that's being recapped, then seconds later, we get the recap itself. Ideally, you should have the two parts inter-cut together as one dynamic scene. Instead, we see both sequences separately. Does Ross not think his audience can keep up? Or maybe one of these scene-lets was tacked on during rewrites? Whatever the reason: the decision to cleave these two related moments in half reeks of a general lack of clarity or knowledge of how to make decent-enough conceits more dramatically convincing.

I don't really believe that the filmmakers have sophisticated or even thoughtful ideas about white privilege and/or POCs' invisibility and subordinate roles in society simply because that social dynamic is cursorily acknowledged. I also freely admit that I don't have a dog in this fight, and therefore am only playing devil's advocate, a position I would rather not be in. But, since I'm here, I might as well lean into being the villainous heel to your heroic face: if our heroines get away — because the film's most refreshing aspect is its atypically casual celebration of sororal friendship — why are there absolutely no consequences along the way? I don't need this film to be the friggin' Asphalt Jungle, but I never once felt that there was enough tension, or conflict during the drama's set-up. I expected a happy ending because Ocean's 8 is not the kind of film that ends with consequences: it's light popcorn entertainment, as you said, an adequate 110-minute opportunity to enjoy some free air-conditioning. But a little more suspense leading up to that foregone conclusion would have been nice.

I guess I don't feel compelled to applaud Ocean's 8 for its light social commentary given the project's generic limitations. I wanted more character development for Kaling and Awkwafina, two heroines who are identified as working class women driven by a shared desire to move on up. There was only one scene between these two characters that made me sit up and say "Yes, more of this," and that was when Constance (Awkwafina) explains Tinder to Amita (Kaling). It was sweet...but even that needed a good punch-up. Where's the modern equivalent of a Carrie Fisher-like script doctor when you need her?

That's, realistically, my biggest problem: there's some fine basic conceits here, but no follow-through that I care about. It's all tacitly accepted cliches and hand-me-down genre hokum that isn't embraced with much conviction. The old one binge-eats Nutella because nervous and old. The street-smart POC with the hacking skills wants to open her own bar, and has a smarter younger sibling because white writers think she's one of the Cosby-ified "good ones" who can do a crime, but also be humanized by her familial ties. And the confident white women wear nice clothes, get free stuff, and drink together while listening to vinyl in a big ol loft because post-Sex and the City wish fulfillment. Ok. Not invalid, but I don't really feel like throwing up my hands just because I'm not the film's target audience. I don't even think I'm the target audience for Ocean's 11! Still, which is it: capably superficial or sneakily perceptive? Low-key woke, or checklist ally-ship? Isn't it all of the above? 

Alex, le Stephanois: I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. I don’t feel the film needed to do more than it did in regards to its characters. It could have, of course, but there’s this liberal tendency to condemn something for trying but not trying hard enough. It was fine. It did more than other films do, don’t kick it for not, as I said earlier, going ALL the way to the left. And although it’s been a while since I saw Ocean's 11, I recall it as being exactly in this mode: you watch criminals do a crime and it’s fun. There’s no overarching antagonist other than the seeming impossibility of the job. And wish fulfillment is part of any action/thriller franchise, my friend. James Bond and the Fast & Furious crew don’t drive Honda Civics, and nobody complains about that. Let our girls have nice (stolen from Vogue) dresses and an improbably cool clubhouse. I come from a deep and sincere love of 1930s screwball comedies and films like The Thin Man, where everyone wears amazing clothes and is fabulously witty. I’m so tired of grim & gritty. Let people have nice things. In a summer of bloated, CGI-heavy franchise “movie events” about white male heroes, Ocean's 8 felt to me like a rare, refreshing treat. I can think of very few other mainly-female-cast ensemble films, and every other one is somehow ultimately about romance: The Women (love it); SATC (toxic garbage); Mamma Mia (also love it). And say what you will about the first Hunger Games, but it was still a landmark film with a female action protagonist front and center. We need to celebrate when we get close, not complain when a thing isn’t perfect. 

Simon, Hudson Hawk's Skateboard Coach: I don't just care that the makers of Ocean's 8 try to have it all ways. I mainly dislike that this film's creators aren't good enough to distract me from the fact that their zingers are just competent, the characterizations are fairly basic, and the heist was only fine. Oh, so there's a lazy scene with Shaobo Qin so we can remember his superior set piece from the original remake of that Rat Pack film. (PS: I don't even like Soderbergh's Ocean's films that much!) Oh, so Helena Bonham-Carter — who I also love — is gonna goggle her eyes and act comically disoriented in every scene because her character is older. Oh, so the big elaborate jewel heist is gonna boil down to a lost German tourist routine, a low-stakes toilet stall snatch-and-grab, and a pothead waiter? OK. Fine.

Why is criticizing this kind of mediocre story-telling off-limits just because this film will ultimately lead to better movies, just like how the first Hunger Games led was followed by superior sequels helmed by Frances Lawrence (oh, hello, here's my Hunger Games-centric interview with him)? I mean, your comment about how "wish fulfillment is party of any action/thriller franchise" kinda goes without saying, no? Why is our entertainment industry's fate — and the fate of its addiction-like reliance on dark-ish, crisis-heavy entertainment — dependent on me accentuating the positive? I mean, sorry/not sorry to pull a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on you, but here's what some of my fellow haters are saying: 

-Time's Stephanie Zacharek writes: "The movie’s rhythms are precariously wobbly; it needs to zip along lightly, as if motored by the energy of champagne bubbles. Ocean’s 8 is one of those movies that’s enjoyable enough in the moment, but you’re likely to forget what you saw within 10 minutes of leaving the theater."

-The Village Voice's Alan Scherstuhl sez: "Director Gary Ross, who also conceived of the story and co-wrote the script, prioritizes getting the pieces into place over making us care about the pieces, and as his movie bounces along it’s easy to miss the smooth, unshowy mastery of Steven 'Ocean’s 11–13' Soderbergh, who usually made the piece-placing stylish fun."

-Vulture's Emily Yoshida adds: "All its getting-the-gang-together scenes — which should be half the fun of this kind of joint — feel airless, conducted in soundproof rooms devoid of ambience or texture or jokes. Soderbergh’s films may have been pure bantering fantasy, but at least Ocean’s Eleven really felt like it took place in Las Vegas. This New York City feels bereft of all the manic energy that should be the reason for setting a heist there in the first place." 

There are plenty of other critics who see things your way (don't make me quote Sexy Rexy), but these are the ones I identify with.

Honestly, when you say that I should "let people have nice things," I have to ask: why does my criticism of this film — phrased specifically as a response to your comments praising the film's low-key sensitivity and low-stakes fun — make me a Bernie Bro-esque wacky inflatable arm-waving straw man? I want to just quote Hannibal Buress, and run (specifically the great line that's become such a handy meme: "Why are you booing me? I'm right!"). 

Instead, I'll just note that I'm not writing about the things I like about Ocean's 8 because these conversations aren't meant to be fair-and-balanced reviews. I can be the bad wrestler to your good one because arguing with you is fun, unlike watching Ocean's 8 (Oh, boo yourself!). This is just me yelling at a friend over virtual libations because I have no clue what movie you just saw that made you so excited. I want to believe, Scully! But I don't. Not yet.

Alex, Ugo Piazza’s Road to Nowhere: I think we’ve actually stopped having a debate about this film, and honestly I’m not really interested in being bludgeoned by the opinions of Actual Film Critics as an example of how I’m Wrong. I’m here because I’m not the professional critic, I’m the goon in the room who goes and sees stuff and shoots from the hip about it. Here are some specific things I liked: I believed the fashion choices. Most of the time that Hollywood tries to do “fashion”, it either mocks people in the industry as idiots (ZoolanderPret-A-PorterI Feel Pretty) or just gets the clothes... super wrong. The Hathaway vehicle The Devil Wears Prada was one of the few that bothered to get it right. And clearly Ocean's 8 made enough effort that fashion people signed off on it — Anna Wintour with a charmingly self-depreciating cameo, Hamish Bowles in some background scenes, et cetera. I believed Hathaway’s dress in Ocean's 8 as a Met Gala dress. The rest of the team and all the bit players looked correctly fashionable. They even had the right dresses on display in the fake exhibit, from actual good designers. So, kudos to Sarah Edwards, who did the costume design. 

There were a lot of moments I loved. Constance’s “I’m on the co-op board” line at the end made me squeal with glee; it’s an incredibly NYC-centric joke, but such a perfect moment I’m remembering it days later. The entire interaction between Nine Ball and Veronica. Watching Rose get her confidence and self-assurance back over the course of the film. Anytime Debbie went to visit Danny’s grave. Every time James Corden was on screen. Hathaway's Daphne directing at the end. Like I said, we’re going to have to agree to disagree. I found this movie fun from top to tail, and while no, it’s not an eternal classic for the ages, it’s well-done proof that a majority-female action-thriller can earn its keep. And as I said, it was just nice to have no giant boss fights or CGI or aliens or clear plays for franchise expansion or whatever. Like Debbie Ocean herself, it got in, did its thing well, then got out. If it didn’t work as well for you, that’s okay. I’m sure right now in Hollywood, it’s inspiring a whole bunch of people to do something better. And that’s more than okay. You gotta start somewhere. 

  • Simon Abrams
  • Alex de Campi