Should have been a blast but instead skates by on the charisma of its cast.
Good heist movies come in all shapes and sizes, but whether they’re light (Fast Five), heavy (The Lookout), fantastical (Inception), or graced with the presence of Kurt Russell (The Art of the Steal), the second common denominator between them is typically a sense of fun creativity. The success of both the thieves and the film itself often comes down to a thrilling balance between plan, execution, and final reveal. Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven trilogy — well, the first and third entries anyway — understands that and delivers accordingly, but the newest film in the franchise fumbles the stolen ball.
Ocean’s 8 isn’t a direct sequel, despite featuring a pair of minor cameos from Soderbergh’s films, and director Gary Ross instead builds a world with new characters, motivations, and actors. It’s a likable enough movie thanks mostly to its killer cast, but when it comes to the key ingredient of good heist films — the fun of the actual heist — it’s a disappointingly sedate experience.
Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) sits before the parole board, and like her brother Danny — may he rest in peace — did many years prior, she promises to become a model citizen and is promptly released. A few minor, impromptu scams/thefts later and Debbie’s set up in a fancy hotel room on someone else’s dime, and from there she gets immediately to organizing a team for an epic heist at the Met Gala. Along with her best friend/partner in crime/possible partner in love Lou (a typically stunning Cate Blanchett), Debbie pulls together an eclectic group of hopeful criminals.
Rose (Helena Bonham Carter) is a disgraced fashion designer, Amita (Mindy Kaling) is a jewelry expert, Nine Ball (Rihanna) is a hacker, Constance (Awkwafina) is a pickpocket, and Tammy (Sarah Paulson) is a suburban mom with a knack for fencing stolen goods. Kudos to those of you who noticed the team only adds up to seven, but can you possibly guess who number eight will turn out to be?
Yes, you can.
The plan, as laid out far too clearly by Debbie and Lou, is to manipulate the gala’s star celeb Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) into hiring Rose as her designer and then insisting she be allowed to wear an elaborate, extremely expensive Cartier necklace that’s been in a secure vault for half a century. From there the crew will work in various roles to separate the necklace from Daphne’s neck during the party, replace it with a 3D-printed Zirconium copy, and smuggle it out of the museum.
Ocean’s 8 begins on solid, if oddly low-key, ground as the cast and characters are introduced, but while Ross and co-writer Olivia Milch set an engaging enough table they disappoint with the meal that follows. The heist lacks drama, surprise, and an antagonist for viewers and thieves to root against, and while that last point is meant to be answered with the presence of Debbie’s sleazy ex-boyfriend Claude (Richard Armitage) he’s just too flat and minor of a character to care about.
Things go pretty much as expected with the glitz and glamor of NYC’s high fashion replacing the shine and clamor of Las Vegas casinos, but there’s a distinct lack of energy and excitement. In lieu of thrilling set-pieces, we’re gifted with celebrity cameos, and instead of being intrigued and wowed by how they manage various elements of the heist we’re left wondering why — seriously, Kaling’s character serves no purpose during the actual heist despite being used for a weak moment of suspense.
Neither Ross’ direction nor the script generate much in the way of fun, suspense, or creativity, and the film doesn’t manage a single “wow” moment. Even the requisite third-act surprise is delivered with less excitement than a scene showing Debbie and Lou share a dessert. (To be fair, their dessert scene is lovely and deserving of its own spinoff.) Adding to that lack of momentum and energy is the absence of a villain. They’re stealing from Cartier and the Met (two of many brands name-checked throughout the film), but there’s no Andy Garcia-level baddie fighting back leaving only inept security as an obstacle.
For all that underwhelms, though, it’s hard to walk away unhappy with this cast. Bullock, Kaling, Carter, and Paulson are all solid and having fun, but it’s the other four leads who generate the film’s smiles. Blanchett and Rihanna are both the epitome of cool and command the screen whenever they’re on it. Blanchett is basically this film’s Brad Pitt as Lou is Debbie’s best friend and the one who challenges her about mixing the heist with a personal vendetta, and it’s terrific seeing her strut, smile, and jet around on motorcycles. Awkwafina also shines with great comic delivery and reactions. It’s Hathaway who steals the film, though, confirming yet again that she’s one of our finer comedic actors. Her arrival visibly lifts the film’s energy level, and it’s almost enough to make you wish the film was called Kluger’s 8 instead.
“A ‘him’ gets noticed, a ‘her’ gets ignored,” says Debbie as an explanation as to why she wants an all-women team. “For once we want to be ignored.” It’s as memorable a beat as Ocean’s 8 manages, but while there’s an appeal to a female-friendly riff on an established property it ultimately still needs to be its own thing. Oddly, as with the recent Solo: A Star Wars Story, the film feels too indebted to what came before, and while the characters leave us hoping for a follow-up this initial entry just feels too rote in its execution and obligations.