The Ocean’s franchise is the latest to get the female cast makeover, following on from the reboot of Ghostbusters in 2016 and ahead of the remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels coming out later in the year. While all three of these films draw on quite different source material, they share a common interest in how procedure – and procedural genres – look from the vantage point of a predominantly female cast. Interestingly, all three original films and franchises also took the idea of procedural cinema as a masculine domain to its logical conclusion, and so, in some sense, already parodied the idea of procedural cinema to begin with. While Ghostbusters might be best known for its trio of Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Akroyd, Sigourney Weaver had well and truly become a part of the team by the time the second film was released. Similarly, while Dirty Rotten Scoundrels centred on Michael Caine and Steve Martin as con artists competing to swindle a target played by Glenne Headly, it was actually Headly’s character who turned out to have been the ultimate con artist all along. Finally, while the Ocean’s franchise might have started out in the traditional, Brat Pack model of the original, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and then Ellen Barkin worked as comic counterpoints to this masculinist fraternity across the trilogy as a whole.
What all three of these original films and franchises thus share is a prescience that procedural genres are inherently comic when elaborated and extended beyond a certain point, just because they depend upon a hyper-rationalism and hyper-organisation that also becomes implausible when extended beyond a certain point, both on its own terms and in its supposedly exclusive association with masculinity. For that reason, all of these films were comic riffs on procedure to begin with, or self-deprecating procedural exercises, meaning that reimagining them with an all-female cast can go one of two different ways. On the one hand, you have a reboot like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, which perhaps underestimates how self-deprecating the original actually was, resulting in a remake that takes the original too seriously to ever be consistently or ingeniously comic on its own terms. On the other hand, however, Ocean’s 8 treats Steven Soderbergh’s franchise as self-parody to begin with, resulting in a remake that treats procedure itself as a joke, and uses its all-female cast to envisage something more properly and ingeniously post-procedural, rather than investing the original with a reverence for procedure, and procedural genre, that it didn’t really have.
In that sense, Ocean 8 belongs alongside television series like Search Party and Dietland that feature female protagonists confronted with the kinds of mysterious urban landscapes that might have once demanded procedure to orient and navigate them – and a procedural male presence to orient and navigate them – but in which the typical sources of procedural knowledge are inadequate, complicit or simply uninteresting and irrelevant. For the most part, these narratives are set in New York, presumably due to the centrality of the Big Apple in procedural television programs, as well as the peculiar fixation with urban mapping that took over representations of New York in the wake of 9/11, and which have percolated into so much New York cinema and literature over the last fifteen years. In these post-procedural outings, however, that incitement to mapping is replaced by a more diffuse and amorphous awareness of urban space, in which certain nodes and junctures stand out as promising some sort of illumination, but are rarely articulated in relation to each other in the systematic, rationalist and masculinist rhetoric that defined an older kind of procedure.
While Ocean’s 8 inevitably has a clearer point of focus than these more experimental television series, it nevertheless partakes of the same dissolution of procedure, and the same free-floating approach to New York, where the action has shifted after the focus on Vegas, and Vegas-surrogates, that preoccupied Soderbergh’s original trilogy. Once again, the film revolves around a heist, set up by Danny Ocean’s sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock) and her partner Lou (Cate Blanchett), and featuring Amita (Mindy Kaling), a jeweler, Tammy (Sarah Paulson), a profiteer, Constance (Awkwafina), a thief, Nine Ball (Rihanna), a hacker, Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), a veteran fashion designer, and Daphne (Anne Hathaway), a famous screen actress. However, the nature of this heist, and the way in which it is orchestrated, is very different from those of the first few films, and bears much more in common with the heist at the heart of Logan Lucky, Soderbergh’s return to cinema after his time away from the big screen, both in terms of its camaraderie and its eventual execution.
Most immediately, the rapport between the members of this heist is quite different from anything to be found in the Danny Ocean films. There, the members of the heist were united by a professional code that involved strictly-drawn boundaries between responsibilities, and a clear division of charismatic labour. While there were emotional connections between members of the group, they were always contained by this sense of clean-cut professionalism, with most of the moments outside the heist taking place in hotel corridors, rather than in any kind of consistent domestic space. By contrast, the women in Ocean’s 8 enjoy a much messier, cruisier, informal relation to one another, with Debbie and Lou setting the scene with a homosocial rapport that often plays as a comic riff on Carol. The assemblage of the crew is a similarly provisional process, driven, to be sure, by Debbie’s endless planning in prison, but also open to contingencies and to quite late additions to the heist, with one member after another coming to live in a giant Brooklyn house that Lou sets up for the occasion, and which becomes their shared living space and centre of operations.
For that reason, the diverse backgrounds – racial, generational, emotional – that were so tightly contained by the professionalism of the original three films are now allowed to breathe a bit more, and interpenetrate more amongst the group as a whole, resulting in a heist that feels more ingenious than the previous three combined, just because the dynamics of the crew are flexible enough to incorporate the possibility of genuine improvisation into the way they go about their business. That blurriness also applies to the heist itself, which depends, initially, on Debbie recruiting Rose, the fashion designer, to convince Daphne, the actress, to dress her for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala, “the most exclusive party invitation in America.” Once she’s secured Daphne as a client, Rose then needs to do everything in her power to convince Cartier to lend Daphne the Touissaint, a $150 million necklace, as part of her costume, setting up Debbie and the rest of the crew for an elaborate heist that involves removing the item from Daphne’s neck, and replacing it with a cubic zirconia copy, without anybody at the Metropolitan Gala being any the wiser.
From the very outset, then, the cumulative thresholds of the Danny Ocean heists are replaced with a more dispersed series of thresholds – the threshold to the Cartier vault, where Lou has to make a three-dimensional copy of the necklace under tight conditions, the threshold to Daphne’s dressing-room, which Rose has to traverse for the heist to even occur in the first place, the threshold to the Gala, which Debbie has to access to even have a shot of organizing the crime and then all the thresholds within the Met itself, which, critically, don’t just involve the gradual extraction of an object, but the extraction and replacement of an object across a variety of different scales and situations. As Debbie points out, they’re not robbing a museum, they’re robbing someone inside a museum, but even that distinction breaks down as the night proceeds, even as the gradual possibility that Daphne has started to suspect that something is amiss adds a further complication to the scheme as a whole. While this broad canvas approach is not an uncommon feature of heist genres, the focus and rhythm is different here, and more akin to post-procedural television, as the crime unfolds as a series of flash points that never quite resolve into a consistent or stable procedure, and instead require the team to mine their cruisey rapport, and their capacity for collective improvisation, rather than converging on one single or discernible trajectory.
In fact, the heist only succeeds because of how radically the women diverge over the course of the night, paving the way for abbreviated third act in which James Corden enters the frame as John Frazier, an insurance fraud investigator whose parodically procedural tics migrate the film into full-blown comedy. While the Danny Ocean heists might have evaded detection, they always felt as if they could have been reconstructed, retrospectively, as a procedural narrative, but that very idea is a comic premise here, as every effort Corden makes to understand the story turns him into more of a comic foil, until his character actually seems to be in on the joke. The final touch from the crew is a series of older actresses that they hire to provide a backstory for the jewels once they have removed them from the necklace, just as Daphne ends up putting in the best performance of her career to convince Corden’s character that she had nothing to do with the crime as well. In both cases, the very idea of cinematic performance, and cinematic charisma, is pitted against Corden’s procedural rhetoric, and the procedural genres it mines – an appropriate ending for a film that is so acutely interested in the forms of charisma that procedure stifles, rather than the forms of charisma that it enables, making for one of the best heist films in years.