Ocean’s Eight is a pleasantly diverting trifle

Gary Ross’ Ocean’s Eight is, like all Ocean’s films before it, a pleasantly diverting trifle. But its relative deficiency of zip and pizzazz makes me wonder if co-producer Steven Soderbergh positioned his own Logan Lucky as an act of sabotage. I found myself mentally compiling a wishlist while watching:

  • I believe it was intended as a plot twist that James Corden’s insurance investigator was chummy with career criminal Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), but it only reduced the stakes
  • nice to see Elliot Gould and Shaobo Qin, but a cameo from Julia Roberts would have been fun and fitting
  • speaking of cameos, I would have LOL’d if one of the hapless chefs Cate Blanchett was training had been Topher Grace
  • the insurance investigator could have been a female English star — how about Emma Thompson? Kate Winslet? Thandie Newton? (yes, thematically, it makes sense for the character to be a male antagonist, but it still seems like a missed casting opportunity)
  • I didn’t note one, just one, quotable line of dialogue (like “and then he’ll go to work on you” or “allllllll reds” or “did you check the batteries” or countless others from Ocean’s Eleven)
  • a score by David Holmes would have gone a long way

Some praise: Anne Hathaway was totally the MVP. As in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, she stole all the scenes, and elevated the material.

Some trivia: I was startled to hear an unmistakable sample of No-Man’s “Dry Cleaning Ray” repeated several times in Daniel Pemberton’s score. I’m a big No-Man fan, and this is a deep cut. I hope Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness were cut a check.

three out of five stars

The Therapist Experience: The Girlfriend Experience

Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience is a low-fi, partially improvised production loosely associated with his periodic palate-cleansing experiments including Schizopolis, Full Frontal, K Street, and Bubble. Working with real locations and relatively cheap cameras, this class of thrifty productions allows Soderbergh a rapid turnaround from conception to finished product. In the case of Schizopolis, the lower price tag allotted a certain amount of creative freedom for uncomfortable autobiography. But Soderbergh is also able to bring timelier subject matter to theaters more quickly than most feature films can manage, delayed as they are by the monumental amount of funding and team effort it takes to make and market one. Even the music is economical — most of it diegetic, performed onscreen by street buskers, but also incorporating a cool score by Ross Godfrey.

The Great Recession and Bush’s October 2008 bank bailout hang over everything. Soderbergh beat other films featuring characters beset by unemployment and poverty, including Wendy & Lucy, Frozen River, and especially Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. The sex trade is just a titillating hook for the greater theme of commerce itself, and the way freelance individuals market themselves in order to make a living. The high-class escort Christine (Sasha Grey) is nothing more than a small business owner, a hooker Joe the Plumber.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience
High-class escort Christine (Sasha Grey) is a hooker Joe the Plumber

Terminology is very important. “Call girl” is allowed, but “prostitute” is most certainly never used. The phrase “the girlfriend experience” is professional lingo used by call girls to describe service that goes beyond mere sex. The movie depicts very little nudity or sex, and we’re thankfully spared a humiliating experience in which she trades sex for a positive online review from a scumbag (Glenn Kenny) who has granted himself the power to destroy or boost escorts’ careers.

The film opens with an image of a modern work of art hanging on a gallery wall, comprised largely of dull, flattened, reflective metal — just like Christine herself. Whether Grey’s blank performance is deliberate choice or an expression of her limited acting abilities, it fits the character. While Christine is a savvy businesswoman concerned with self-promotion and maximizing her income, her business is entirely in the fulfillment of others’ wishes, up to a point, for a fee. She has goals and desires, but tellingly, Christine defers even her dinner orders to men. The only thing that seems to arouse her is Personology, a Scientology-esque variation of new age hokum astrology that she uses to guide both personal and professional decisions. It seems a bigger hazard to her happiness and success than her profession.

The economic climate may be bad, but Christine and her boyfriend live in a swanky apartment adorned with their art collection. Her clients are mostly financiers, living luxe lifestyles but made anxious by the financial calamity to the point of impotence. They vent their panic to her while she patiently listens and asks softball questions. She always makes a point to ask her clients how their wives and children are doing; not to shame them, but out of a kind of polite decorum that somehow validates what they are doing with her. She has variations of the same staid conversation with her own boyfriend: “It’s good to see you too. How was your day?” Sometimes her clients are so worked up they don’t even want sex, just someone to listen. So what she provides might sometimes be better described as The Therapist Experience. In the unexpectedly touching final scene, she meets a favorite client in less glamorous circumstances than we’ve seen before, and fulfills his needs with a tenderness she hasn’t previously demonstrated, even for her own lover.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience
Christine (Sasha Grey) provides The Therapist Experience… for a price

The story is told through multiple layers of narration. Christine keeps a functionally dry journal of her appointments, keeping track of her various ersatz relationships, the brands of clothing she wore (down to the lingerie), where they dined, what movie they saw, whether or not they had sex. In a second layer of narration, a journalist interviews her for an piece he’s writing on call girls. He finds her interesting in that she’s the only escort he has met that is in a serious relationship. The issue is raised as if it were the key question of the movie, but the theme falls by the wayside to make way for examinations of the ways that people sell themselves in a difficult economic climate.

Her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) is a physical trainer, another profession that values youth and physique. While Christine tries to expand her escort business by commissioning a website, and soliciting reviews on seedy internet message boards. All the while she hopes to remain anonymous so she can eventually finance and launch a legitimate boutique. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is simultaneously trying to expand his own business. Like Christine, he is his own boss while working in an established system that resists free agents. His most successful tactic to upgrade his clients into longer, more lucrative commitments is to insincerely cast their work together as a relationship, a bit of psychological manipulation he perhaps learned from his girlfriend.

Like Soderbergh’s Bubble and K Street, some of the cast are non-actors. But Grey is one step removed from an amateur, being in fact a professional porn star. She is likely one of the few to ever fall up, as it were, from pornography to a legitimate film career. She doesn’t seem to have extraordinary acting skills (which is good, for her character is distant and chilly by design), nor does she have an especially expressive face or voice. But she is remarkably pretty, petite, and blessed with a lovely figure seemingly unmolested by silicone. But why look to the world of porn to cast a prostitute? To put it bluntly, it’s illegal in most states for one person to get paid to provide sex, but it is legal to get paid to have sex on camera. Did Soderbergh imagine a real porn star would have special insight into the character of a prostitute? Perhaps he saw parallels in Grey markets herself as a brand in the adult entertainment world.

Death Has No Dominion in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002)

As a huge title card reads immediately at the end of the film, Solaris was “written for the screen and directed by Steven Soderbergh.” This Dork Reporter is a huge admirer, but that seemed a bit egotistical even to me. Perhaps an overenthusiastic end-credits designer is to blame? Or maybe the studio wanted to capture some more of that lucrative Ocean’s Eleven magic by playing up the Soderbergh/Clooney brand?

But writing and directing credits, however many feet tall, barely begin to describe Soderbergh’s role. For this and many of his other films, he serves as his own Director of Photography (and even physical camera operator) under the pseudonym Peter Andrews and also as editor under the name Mary Ann Bernard. So, obviously, Soderbergh is one of the few mainstream filmmakers with the luxury of near-total control over his films. Like Kubrick, he produces, writes, directs, operates the camera, and edits. But while Kubrick was a control freak (in the best sense), the modest Soderbergh is lauded as being more collaborative and especially as a sensitive director of actors.

George Clooney in Solaris
Paging Dr. Ross, to the O.R., stat!

The DVD edition includes an excellent commentary track of Soderbergh in conversation with co-producer James Cameron, the original director attached to the project. Soderbergh asks Cameron what he thought of how he approached the material. Cameron points out that Soderbergh took a more “internal” approach than he would have, and both agree in good humor that Cameron would have included more car chases. More than Soderbergh’s grand total of zero, anyway.

Depending on how you count, Soderbergh has only directed two remakes: Ocean’s Eleven and Solaris (The Limey was a kind of homage or mash-up remix of the English crime classics Point Blank and Get Carter). The source material of the Polish novel Solaris by Stanislaw Lem has proven a rich mine for cinema. Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky directed the original adaptation in 1972 as the Eurasian answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The basic concept also drove films as diverse as Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (which is horrible but has uncommonly spectacular special effects and art direction) and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Soderbergh’s version of Solaris is credited as being based more on the original novel the 1972 film, with barely a mention of Tarkovsky even in the DVD commentary track. In his essay for the 2002 Criterion Collection edition of the original Solaris, Phillip Lopate states that Lem was unhappy with Tarkovsky’s interpretation, and was looking forward to what he expected to be a more faithful translation by Soderbergh.

Natascha McElhone in Solaris
Natascha McElhone doesn’t like the looks of this tanning booth

Solaris is set at an unspecified point in the future, distant enough for humanity to have perfected the technology to leave the solar system. Kelvin (George Clooney) is a shrink who is himself deeply emotionally damaged. Indeed, the theme of both this and the original film could be summed up as “physician heal thyself.” We first see him hosting a group therapy session for survivors of an unspecified tragedy. Since the movie was released in 2002, it’s possible this was intended as an analogy to a 9/11-like event. But judging by how every scene set on Earth is drenched in darkness and persistent rain, perhaps there was some kind of ecological catastrophe.

Single and with no family, Kelvin is an ideal candidate for a solo trip to investigate mysterious goings-on in a space station orbiting the distant gas giant Solaris (pay attention for the brief cameo by John Cho as a governmental emissary). Unlike Tarkovski’s extremely leisurely pace, this version wastes no time; Kelvin’s boots are on the space station less than 10 minutes into the film. This is the point where any readers wary of spoilers ought to stop reading.

Kelvin encounters Snow (Jeremy Davies, supremely well-cast), a man understandably gone stir-crazy from being cooped up on a haunted space station. But it becomes clear that he himself may be one of the forces doing the haunting. Evidently, the planet Solaris somehow draws upon the strongest emotional resonances in visitors’ brains and manifests them as living beings. These incarnations are most decidedly not a blessing for anyone. For Clooney, it’s an echo of his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone); for the captain Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), it’s a copy of the son he left behind on earth; for Snow, it’s… another version of himself. The “Snow” that Clooney meets is, in effect, his own ghost; he killed his own creator within seconds of his birth. The faux Snow’s weird behavior is not that of a man gone mad but of a not totally fully-formed human bluffing his way through unfamiliar human interaction. One has to wonder what kind of man is so alone or self-obsessed that the most important person encoded in his emotional memories is himself.

Solaris
The Solaris crew rehearses its big technobabble scene

Kelvin and Rheya originally bonded over the Dylan Thomas verse “and death shall have no dominion,” but the emotionally fragile woman committed suicide after he left her. Tortured by the renewed presence of her in his life, and the perplexing puzzle of Snow’s doppelgänger, he begins to question his own existence: is he someone else’s ghost? But he doesn’t take the question to the next logical step: is there anyone in the world with enough emotional investment in him to cause him to haunt them?

Solaris is both Soderbergh and Clooney’s first and only science fiction. It was marketed with a misleading poster suggesting a romance while obscuring any hint of science fiction. It is admittedly kind of funny to see Clooney in a spacesuit, especially when he was relatively early in his career as a movie actor (after years in television sitcoms and dramas). One can’t imagine Clooney’s Hollywood ancestor Cary Grant appearing in a space opera. But Solaris tries to have it both ways: to be somehow above science fiction but still be overloaded with enough pseudo-scientific technobabble to fill several Star Trek epics. The sensitive, emotional tone of the film is shattered as soon as scientist Gordon (Viola Davis) starts lecturing the audience about proton beams breaking up fields of Higgs Particles (or something along those lines). Such technobabble cheapens the premise. Indeed, the talky screenplay makes everything too explicit and concrete, especially compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which says so much more with so many fewer words.

Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble

BubbleAs a look into the lives of factory workers in an economically depressed town turns into a noir (as Steven Soderbergh himself notes on the commentary track), I caught a whiff of class anthropology. That said, I understand Soderbergh’s point that critics’ charges of exploitation are condescending; the non-actors are intelligent human beings who wholly knew what they were getting into.

With this project, Soderbergh is tackling several unknowns at once: high-definition video, the feasibility of simultaneous release, and the storytelling device of drawing on the real-life experiences of non-actors. How does one tell if an experiment is a success when there are so many variables?