Nestled among this spring’s blockbusters, two mid-tier comedies – Overboard and Life of the Party – provided audiences with alternatives in more ways than one. In addition to being options that didn’t involve genocidal giants or mouthy mercenaries, they’re also gender-swapped variations on fondly remembered ’80s films, with Overboard being a literal remake of the 1987 rom-com while Life of the Party is a kind of spiritual successor to the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School refashioned as one for Melissa McCarthy. And continuing the trend is Ocean’s Eight, a female-driven extension of the Ocean’s franchise headlined by Sandra Bullock as Danny Ocean’s felonious sister Debbie. Its roots reach back a few years, though, and involve some of the same players.
It’s no secret that Hollywood hasn’t always been great about coming up with decent roles for actresses to play once they reach a certain age. (Just ask the cast of Book Club.) The proactive Bullock took matters into her own hands, then, with the 2015 comedy-drama Our Brand Is Crisis, which she executive produced and had the lead role (originally intended for a man) rewritten so she could play it. The following year McCarthy anchored the all-female Ghostbusters remake that came and went without a hint of controversy, because if there’s one thing in this world that’s bound to be controversy-free, it’s a remake of a beloved ’80s comedy.
Case in point: Overboard, which flips the script on the Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn match-up by having the man (Eugenio Derbez’s Leonardo) be the spoiled rich prick who gets amnesia and the woman (Anna Faris’s Kate) the aggrieved working stiff who takes advantage of his condition by fraudulently claiming they’re married. Screenwriters Bob Fisher and Rob Greenberg (also the film’s director) alter the story in other ways, too, making single mom Kate’s life even more chaotic by giving her two jobs on top of studying for her nursing exam and taking care of her three daughters when her flighty mother abandons them to join a touring theatrical company.
As for the Hawn role, the original’s spoiled married socialite has been reconfigured as a single Latino playboy living the high life on his own personal yacht. The son of the world’s third-richest man, he’s also in line to take over the family construction supply company, which his ailing father is all ready to hand over to Leonardo when he goes missing (or, to be more precise, goes unclaimed by his scheming sister). This adds a layer of irony to the pampered Leonardo being put to work on a construction crew so Kate can concentrate on her studies. And that’s on top of his domestic duties, which he takes to once he overcomes his initial disbelief. (For example, he turns out to be an excellent cook, channeling his gourmand’s taste into greatly improved menu options for Kate and her daughters.)
In addition to reversing the genders, which makes Kate’s scheme seem marginally less exploitative than it did in 1987, the new Overboard raises issues of race in addition to privilege, allowing Leonardo to experience what it’s like to be a person of color in America without the cushion of money. (Making him Mexican also means every scene between his family members plays out in subtitled Spanish, a rarity for mainstream Hollywood product.) As much as it plots its own course, though, integrating elements of the Telenovela along the way, this Overboard steers straight back into the original’s maritime climax, complete with a reprise of the “old Spanish legend” of Arturo and Catalina. True, Fisher and Greenberg change it up by having Leonardo hesitate when his father threatens to cut him off (prompting a stunned Kate to say, “This is not how I envisioned this moment”), but the resolution is the same. Love, as it often does in these situations, conquers all.
Romance is the last thing on the mind of Melissa McCarthy’s Deanna in Life of the Party, which cuts to the chase by having her husband Dan (Matt Walsh) ask her for a divorce mere moments after they drop off daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon) for her senior year at their alma mater (Decatur University, playing itself). Seizing the opportunity to make lemonade out of her lemon of a failed marriage, Deanna decides to finish the archaeology degree she put on hold two decades earlier when she got pregnant, but first McCarthy and co-writer/director/husband Ben Falcone insert a pair of jokey scenes with her parents (belligerent father Stephen Root, sandwich-obsessed mother Jacki Weaver) and her best friend (Maya Rudolph, the film’s secret weapon), demonstrating that tight plotting will not be the order of the day.
Much like Deanna surprises Maddie with the news that they’ll be co-eds, a similar dynamic is at work in Back to School when self-made millionaire Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield), having caught his second wife cheating on him and presented her with divorce papers, spontaneously visits his son (played by Keith Gordon) at the fictional Grand Lakes University (played by the University of Wisconsin). “Boy, will Jason be surprised,” Thornton says, and that turns out to be an accurate statement. Finding Jason on the verge of dropping out, Thornton enrolls as a freshman, buying his way in by making a sizable donation to the business school. This act fails to endear him to snooty economics professor Dr. Phillip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead, who later did a voice in the 1991 animated feature Rover Dangerfield), earning Thornton a formidable enemy before he even sets foot in a classroom.
For Deanna, her two main nemeses are Dan’s fiancée and a stuck-up mean girl whose equivalent in Back to School is the self-centered jock who’s constantly on Jason’s case. Pretty much everyone else she encounters is extremely friendly and supportive, including her daughter’s sorority sisters, who accept her in spite of Maddie’s initial embarrassment. But hey, at least Deanna doesn’t move right into her dorm the way Thornton takes over the one Jason shares with his anarchist roommate Derek (Robert Downey, Jr.), having it remodeled so it resembles the Beatles’ shared residence in Help! The parents in both films also go overboard with their expressions of school spirit, but while Thornton’s enthusiasm is taken in stride, Deanna’s is received with eye-rolling derision, resulting in one of her many scenes of embarrassment.
This points up one of the main differences between Back to School and Life of the Party: Unlike Deanna, who’s plagued by self-doubt and insecurity, Thornton is all confidence and bravado, hard-wired to bulldoze his way through every obstacle in his path. His only real setback comes when he’s caught cheating on his midterms and is forced to undergo a comprehensive oral examination at Dr. Barbay’s insistence, a sequence which finds its echo in the oral presentation Deanna has to give in her Archaeology 301 class (the only one we ever see her in). It’s odd that McCarthy and Falcone give Deanna a crippling fear of public speaking considering how outsized her personality is, but her insecurity when all eyes are on her reflects how much more she had riding on her quest to complete her education.
When Back to School came out in 1986, it was marketed as a whimsical, high-concept vehicle for its star’s larger-than-life persona and knack for snappy one-liners (provided by a grand total of seven writers, including Dangerfield and Harold Ramis). A financial wiz who has no qualms about sharing his wealth (as long as he likes the recipient), Thornton Melon has such deep pockets he can hire Oingo Boingo (whose leader, Danny Elfman, scored the film) to play his raucous dorm party. In the year 2018, however, it’s not unheard of for divorcees and empty nesters to go back to school, either to finish a degree or get another one. Deanna’s financial situation is far from secure, though, to the point where she and her sorority sisters have to throw a “Keep Dee-Rock in College” party and put out word Christina Aguilera will be performing at it to attract enough of a crowd. (This starts out as a stunt that nearly backfires, but it should come as a surprise to no one that Aguilera actually does show thanks to the eleventh-hour intercession of Deanna’s reclusive goth roommate.)
The last distinction to be made is how both films handle sex. The kind of man who hits on women young and old with impunity, Thornton pursues and seduces one of his professors (Sally Kellerman), who seems blithely unconcerned about the ethical ramifications of sleeping with one of her students. Deanna, on the other hand, beds and is pursued by a frat guy who calls her his “sexual Dumbledore.” The cute lug means it as a compliment, but as the adult in the relationship, Deanna knows the thing to do is nip it in the bud as quickly as possible, no matter how much she may be flattered by the attention.
As a motivating factor, sex is entirely off the table in Ocean’s Eight, which follows its predecessor’s lead by being about a group of glamorous people pulling off an elaborate heist full of twists and reversals, all of which have been foreseen by its mastermind. Introduced at her parole hearing, just like her brother is at the beginning of Ocean’s Eleven, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) has a chip on her shoulder after being incarcerated in a New Jersey prison for several years. Unlike Danny, though, Debbie isn’t out to reunite with an old flame because her boyfriend is the one who set her up. That means what drives her – apart from engineering the theft of a diamond necklace valued at $150 million – is revenge, which raises the same flag for her second (club owner Lou, played by Cate Blanchett) as Danny’s side con did for Rusty.
Apart from cutting down on the number of criminals involved, writer/director Gary Ross and co-writer Olivia Milch deviate very little from the template provided by Eleven screenwriter Ted Griffin. After Debbie lays out the broad strokes of her plan, she and Lou spend the first act recruiting the rest of the crew, which Debbie wants to be all women. (“A ‘him’ gets noticed,” she says. “A ‘her’ gets ignored. For once, we want to be ignored.”) Once the crew is assembled and the pitch delivered, the next act is spent on preparations for the heist, with everybody applying their special talents to the task at hand, until the day of the Met Gala arrives. As in Eleven, some last-minute improvisation is required, and there are moments during the job when things appear to be going south, but since there’s no equivalent of Matt Damon’s Linus in the film, Debbie is able to take part without any subterfuge involved (other than the untraceable accent she adopts for its execution).
In contrast with the array of cons being run in Eleven, which require some of the participants to appear in multiple guises – and the viewer to watch the film multiple times to pick up on all the nuances – the heist in Eight is more streamlined. Its ancillary target is also less imposing than Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict, which means the film has a void in the villain department that shady art dealer Claude Becker (Richard Armitage) can’t hope to fill. And even with a smaller number of supporting players to keep track of, only a few – Anne Hathaway’s egotistical actress, Helena Bonham Carter’s fidgety fashion designer, Rihanna’s supremely confident hacker – manage to stand out. With no wild cards like the bickering Malloy brothers or Saul Bloom’s apparent heart condition in sight, these women get the job done with the utmost competence and a minimum of fuss, which has the net effect of making it appear all too easy.
What’s most curious about Eight, though, is the way it’s framed by Debbie’s visits to the mausoleum where her brother is supposedly entombed. Whether Danny is really inside or has merely faked his death is left ambiguous, but the implication is the torch has been passed from one Ocean to another, with the option for George Clooney to pop up in a future installment should this one do enough business. In the meantime, admirers of Hathaway’s work here can look forward to next year’s The Hustle, a gender-swapped remake of the 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (which was itself a remake) in which she’s starring opposite Rebel Wilson. Plus ça change…