“A him gets noticed, a her gets ignored—and for once, we want to be ignored.” Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) is defending her decision to draft only women into her heist squad. Over five years in prison, she has plotted to steal a $150 million diamond necklace at the Met Gala. Women will never be the prime suspects, Debbie’s argument goes, and besides—they’re doing this for all the little girls out there who dream of growing up to be career criminals. Amid this flurry of faux-feminist (fauxminist?) gags, Ocean’s 8 runs on two core questions: Will this gang of plucky gals make off with the loot? And will Gary Morris produce a film to rival Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 Ocean’s Eleven, the one that started this whole franchise? The answer, predictably, is yes and no.
We start with a parole meeting, which sees Debbie waltz out of jail in the evening dress she was wearing when she was caught for art fraud. Ocean’s Eleven began the same way, with Danny Ocean (George Clooney) in black tie. While Danny formed a leadership duo with Rusty (Brad Pitt), Debbie hooks up with the reptilian Lou (Cate Blanchett). As Debbie’s plan gains momentum, the pair are joined by Constance the sleight-of-hand master (Awkwafina), Nine Ball the hacker (Rihanna), Tammy the fence (Sarah Paulson), Rose Weil the designer (Helena Bonham Carter), Amita the jeweler (Mindy Kaling), and, eventually, Daphne the movie star (Anne Hathaway). From an industrial-minimal Brooklyn warehouse, the gang get planning.
The movie features various callbacks to the previous films. Tammy gets pulled out of retirement just like Saul does, except her “retirement” is suburban momhood. Lou does a lot of saying “I’m out.” Debbie closes out the movie wearing a suit and an undone black bowtie, just as Danny ended Ocean’s Eleven.
But from the start we realize that this movie is not going to have that Soderberghian panache. For one thing, the super-glossy, super-detailed quality that is predominant in Hollywood movies today strips this heist movie of the ‘70s atmosphere of its predecessors. There are no split-screen shots until the end of the movie. The soundtrack is pretty good, but it’s far subtler than Soderbergh’s in-your-face use of Perry Como, Quincy Jones, Handsome Boy Modeling School, and Debussy.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare this reboot to that first movie. Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen were pretty bad, too. But so much is recycled here—the comic duo in the lead, the camaraderie—that it’s impossible to avoid. And as I re-watched the 2001 movie right after seeing the new one, it became abundantly clear that certain changes to the plot formula of the Ocean’s recipe had robbed this movie of a lot of magic.
First, the stylized Italian Job vibe is gone in favor of something lighter, more natural. But second and more importantly, there is no villain. In every one of the three male Ocean’s pictures (for want of a better term), an antagonist set the terms for the heist team’s redemption. In the first movie, it was Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). In the second, it was Benedict again, plus François Toulours (the divine Vincent Cassel). In the third, Willy Bank (Al Pacino!). But here there is only one useless bloke on the sidelines named Claude (Richard Armitage), the informant who put Debbie in jail.
Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) has said that this movie is “about camaraderie, not antagonism.” That theme is presumably supposed to play into the idea of solidarity between women, a playful job where the stakes are all cash, no heartbreak. Although this movie is fun, the subtraction of rivalry makes for a movie that is inevitably less riveting. Ocean’s Thirteen was not a perfect movie, but the premise was. The team was hitting Willy Bank’s hotel in revenge for his double-cross of their friend Reuben (Elliott Gould). They did it for a pal. They did it for love. And diamonds are just not as good as revenge.
The heist itself is cool, involving a lot of fancy tricks and undercover work. The team communicates over iMessage, which seems like very bad OPSEC, but otherwise the mechanics of the operation are believable. Still, this leads to the third element missing from this heist plot: an obstacle. Every other movie has featured several stumbling blocks, moments where the viewer is unsure whether the team will succeed. Although there is a minor hiccup at the end, the movie otherwise runs on very smooth wheels. They hatch the plan, they execute the plan. That’s it.
Sandra Bullock is a very fine comic actress, but the pairing with Cate Blanchett doesn’t quite fire up the way that the Clooney-Pitt duet did. Blanchett looks fantastic, however. With her shaggy blonde cut and slinky suits, she looks like a cross between Kim Deal, Nico, and John Travolta. She rides a motorcycle and gives great eye contact. It’s a very queer performance and, even though it’s not funny, it’s among the movie’s most enjoyable.
The funniest performances come from Awkwafina, who skateboards to great effect, and—in a bizarre twist—Anne Hathaway. I wouldn’t have believed Hathaway could steal a scene from Mindy Kaling or Helena Bonham Carter, but the role of flinty narcissist with hidden smarts is perfect for her. In other surprises, James Corden does a very funny turn as an insurance investigator (“I’ve seen a racehorse thrown into a tree shredder ... for money”). The only reprised cast member from the other Ocean’s movies is Shaobo Qin as Yen, the acrobatic “grease man.”
There’s something about seeing a gang of women so uniformly hot and young-ish that is disappointing. The Ocean’s Eleven cast featured one late-middle aged and one truly elderly gentleman. Here, we see a gang of diverse but simultaneously homogenous women. That contrast serves to undercut the lip service to feminism done by the script. It would have been great to see, say, Joanna Lumley in this. There are some wonderful lines sprinkled throughout this movie, as when Tammy takes leave of her son by explaining that mommy has to go on a “very special work trip.” But otherwise, Ocean’s 8 is full of diamonds and lacking in sparkle.