Before Ocean’s Eleven came out in December 2001, George Clooney was asked about the 1960 original, which starred Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack chums. A reporter told him that the Sinatra version was boring, and Clooney didn’t disagree. “Everybody will say, you know, ‘Oh, that’s one of my favorite films,’” Clooney responded dismissively, “and I’ll always say, ‘Have you ever seen it?’ The perception is that you’ve seen the film, because you’ll go, ‘Oh, it’s Frank and Dean and Sammy. Yeah, it’s great.’ But the truth is…”
Clooney didn’t finish that sentence, so I’ll do it for him. The original film, titled Ocean’s 11, is pretty bad, but as Clooney suggested, the idea of it is really fun: All of your favorite Vegas hepcats getting together to drink martinis and knock over casinos. This, to me, always seemed like the ideal strategy for a remake: Take a movie that’s cool in theory but terrible in its execution, and then just do it better. It’s part of the reason why Ocean’s Eleven never had to contend with the usual angry throngs who get riled up whenever a beloved classic is remade. In this case, there was no beloved classic to despoil: Sinatra, Dean Martin and the gang were such an antiquated form of swingin’ masculinity that they were relics, ripe for improvement.
I was reminded of Ocean’s Eleven’s origin story during this weekend’s release of Ocean’s 8, a spin-off/sequel to the Clooney movies that features an all-female cast. Two summers ago, the all-female Ghostbusters had to contend with months of negative buzz, almost all of it coming from furious internet trolls who loudly demanded to know what gave Hollywood the right to remake such a hallowed work of art. Never mind that stars like Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are really funny and had been in hit films such as Bridesmaids: The very notion of women donning the ghostbusting jumpsuits was, to some, a travesty, an outrage, a desecration.
Whether because of that “controversy” or the movie’s mixed reviews, Ghostbusters was a financial disappointment, scuttling Sony’s hopes for sequels. Today, what I remember most about the film isn’t the film itself — it’s the toxic bitterness of online dudes who made it their mission to destroy the remake before audiences had even seen it. In Ghostbusters’ wake, you could understand why studios would abandon hope of reviving any of their moribund franchises in the same way.
Happily, this vitriol has largely not visited Ocean’s 8, at least publicly. The reviews have been comparable to those of Ghostbusters — critics found both movies fun, if a bit familiar — but there’s been so much less online venom surrounding it. And Ocean’s 8 debuted at №1 at the box office, grossing an estimated $41.5 million in its opening weekend. (For the record, Ghostbusters brought in $46 million in its opening frame, but Ocean’s 8 cost half as much as that 2016 film, which means its chances of turning a profit are a lot higher.)
I could be an optimist and suggest that this positive development is the result of our society growing up — or maybe the #MeToo movement has shone a spotlight on harassment and the gender inequalities affecting our culture. But I don’t want to give too much credit to humanity’s basic decency. Instead, I wonder if Warner Bros. was simply smart to realize that, when it comes to beloved movie properties, the Ocean’s films just don’t mean that much to a lot of dudes. The Clooney trilogy is slick and funny, but in the end, it’s no Ghostbusters.
It’s interesting which cultural artifacts stick with us and which just drift away into irrelevance. The original Ghostbusters was the second-highest-grossing movie of 1984, a sort of comedy Avengers that brought together a group of famous funny men in Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. It spawned a reviled 1989 sequel, but afterward, Ghostbusters never really left the public consciousness. If anything, its reputation only grew, becoming one of the most quoted, bro-friendly movies ever alongside Animal House and Caddyshack. The cult of Saturday Night Live and Harvard Lampoon — the building blocks of American film comedy for generations — arguably reached its peak with Ghostbusters. For a lot of people, the movie (and the era that spawned it) might as well be religion.
By comparison, the Ocean’s films are … well, what exactly? The 2001 remake was one of that year’s biggest hits, and the 2004 and 2007 sequelsdid pretty well commercially, even if they weren’t as fondly remembered as the first movie. They still play on cable a ton — especially the 2001 film — but it’s hard to think of them as being sacred cultural objects. They’re just movies. And, just like the 1960 Ocean’s feels like a cultural fossil, so now too do the Clooney films. There’s something sorta pre-#woke about a bunch of smug, sharp-dressed, wisecracking dudes buddying up with one another while Clooney’s Danny Ocean wins back his gal (Julia Roberts, who’s mostly an afterthought). There’s nothing misogynistic about Danny and his pals’ behavior, but it’s striking, in the light of 2018, just how … guy the whole thing is. And unlike the original Ghostbusters, which still reflects a certain type of dude-bro sensibility, Ocean’s 11 seems almost touchingly passé.
In other words, there was room for improvement — or, at least, reinvention — which is where Ocean’s 8 comes in. Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway and the rest of the gang may not replace your memories of Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, but the sequel doesn’t seem like it’s defiling hallowed ground either. (It may help that Ocean’s 8 makes clear it’s in the same universe, and that Bullock’s character is Danny Ocean’s sister. The film merely occupies its own little corner of a known franchise, rather than seeming like it’s trying to ruin your childhood by obliterating the past movies.)
If my theory is right for why Ocean’s 8 mostly avoided the gruesome misogyny that doomed the new Ghostbusters, that’s an encouraging but by no means triumphant sign for our society. Basically, it suggests that Hollywood’s attempt to find more roles for women within the confines of preexisting properties — which has its own complications and moral quandaries — can only work if the remake won’t dare upset the dude-bro forces on the web. It means that studios still have to tread carefully, because apparently, some beloved franchises remain a boys’ club.
Here are a few other takeaways from Ocean’s 8. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)
#1. The movie didn’t end up the way John Mulaney predicted.
John Mulaney is having a moment. The Emmy-winning stand-up has been on a hot streak thanks to his sold-out Broadway show, Oh, Hello, a well-reviewed Netflix special, Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, and an excellent stint hosting Saturday Night Live back in April. He’s been hilarious for years — I highly recommend his 2015 special The Comeback Kid — but he’s been on my mind a lot recently because of Ocean’s 8. Specifically, I’ve thought about a 2012 bit he did called “Female Heist Movie,” in which he explained why such a thing could never exist…
In the bit, Mulaney says, “One thing I’ve noticed, in my own personal experience, is that I think women can be friends with each other, but I think it can be tricky sometimes when you try and force women to hang out with each other. I think that sometimes doesn’t work. Like, you could never put together a heist of women. Does that make sense? Like, Ocean’s Eleven, with women, wouldn’t work — because two would keep breaking off to talk crap about the other nine.”
“Female Heist Movie” was inspired by him starting to date his wife, realizing to his disappointment that his assumption that her female friends and his female friends would instantly become buddies wasn’t going to happen. I think the bit is funny, but one of the things I appreciated about Ocean’s 8 is that it doesn’t go in for any catfight silliness: Bullock and her pals aren’t bitchy to one another in the name of cheap laughs. The truth of the matter is, the women of Ocean’s 8 actually get along really well.
#2. Can we stop hating on Anne Hathaway now?
I’m not sure when the culture turned on Hathaway, but I’ve always been opposed to it. And I’m not the only one: A 2013 Hollywood.com article entitled “Why Does Everyone Hate Anne Hathaway?” tried to get to the bottom of people’s deep-seated animosity toward the Oscar-winning actress. Then last year, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan took up the cause in an essay, “It’s Not Cool to Hate Anne Hathaway Anymore,” that succinctly laid out what her detractors find so objectionable: “Hathaway’s greatest sin is being perceived as ‘actress-y,’ meaning that she’s the sort of ambitious theater kid who likely practiced her Oscar speech in the mirror at age 8 and then went on to make good on that dream.”
In life, people tend to really detest Anne Hathaway types. And while I’m a fan of her work, even I understand this tendency. When Hathaway walked away with Best Supporting Actress for Les Misérables — a super actress-y performance — she definitely gave a speech that felt like it was delivered by the most annoyingly overachieving kid in your middle school. There’s a Tracy Flick quality to her. And in an age when we apparently want our actresses to be cool and blasé (Kristen Stewart) or the fun gal next door (Charlize Theron), Hathaway is just a lame teacher’s pet.
But in Ocean’s 8, she’s gotten good reviews — and, perhaps more importantly, she may be working her way toward getting the mean girls of the internet to start liking her again. The trick was satirizing the image that others have of her. She plays Daphne, a spoiled, painfully insecure starlet who simply must be the center of attention. And, as Vulture’s Jackson McHenry points out, she’s doing a deft bit of self-mockery. “[H]er character … is less an exact parody of Anne Hathaway, and more the idea of Anne Hathaway, refracted through the fun house mirror of celebrity obsession,” he writes, later adding, “nothing in the movie shines brighter than Anne Hathaway’s performance as ‘Anne Hathaway,’ the frequent object of tabloid derision, whom she’s having a hell of a time sending up.”
As someone who thinks she’s delivered great performances in a whole range of movies for years — from serious (Rachel Getting Married) to silly (Get Smart) to sexy (The Dark Knight Rises) to enjoyably screwed-up (Colossal) — I’ve never found her earnestness off-putting. Still, I could sense what she was up to in Ocean’s 8, essentially offering herself up to her haters by playing the worst version of what they imagine her to be: a vain phony pretending to be modest. If Ocean’s 8 helps reconfigure how the public thinks of this talented, appealing actress, then I’ll consider it a success.
#3. I’m glad George Clooney’s not in this.
One of the initial surprises in Ocean’s 8, isn’t that Bullock’s character Debbie Ocean is Danny’s sister — it’s that Danny has died recently. Early on in the film, she visits a cemetery where he’s been buried but, because it’s Danny, there’s doubt in the audience’s mind: Did he fake his death as his latest and greatest con? (Even Debbie’s friends aren’t entirely convinced he’s dead.)
That question hangs over the rest of the film, although it’s never really addressed until the nicely understated finale, when Debbie returns to that cemetery, the heist successfully completed. She simply sits on a bench by his tomb and pours herself a martini in his honor, telling her big brother that he would have been impressed with the scheme she just pulled off.
Because we’ve gotten used to franchises pulling all sorts of fake-outs — you think this character is definitely dead and then, wham, he’s not — I was fully expecting for Clooney to walk into frame at the end to surprise Debbie. But, to my genuine shock, that doesn’t happen. Instead, Ocean’s 8 cuts to black and starts rolling credits. I even stayed until the end, just to be sure. But there’s no post-credits stinger, either: Apparently, Danny Ocean is really dead.
Now, of course if there’s an Ocean’s 9 there might be a twist, but for now, I really appreciated the finality of Ocean’s 8’s last scene. It seemed a nice rebuke to the nonsense that goes on in other franchises: Sometimes, people die, and that sting gently undercuts Debbie’s triumphant revenge over her ex (Richard Armitage) and her massive haul. None of that will bring her brother back.
Also, the plot point argues that Ocean’s 8 doesn’t need the big male star to legitimize this sequel. The women do all the work. So it’s only fair that, at the end, the screen should belong to Bullock alone, and not her big brother.