As in Steven Soderbergh’s much-loved Ocean’s Eleven, Gary Ross’ Ocean’s 8 begins at a parole hearing for our protagonist. She’s making nice and saying all the right things, arguing for a rehabilitation we genre fans know hasn’t occurred. This time, it’s Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), and like her brother Danny before her, there’s a sly edge to her appeal. Of course she’ll commit a crime the minute she walks out the door, if not before then; she’s had five years to chart it out in her head after all. Plus, as the film will argue, crime-doing is just in her blood. The whole family’s a bunch of crooks.
This opening implicitly makes a promise: Ocean’s 8 will do the sorts of things you might expect of an Ocean’s 8 sort of affair. Do not fear. The following two hours will dutifully see this promise through, lifelessly and with all the panache (and some of the aesthetics) of a PowerPoint presentation.
Double-crossed by ex-lover / current art dealer / all-around narrative device Claude (Richard Armitage)), Debbie has used her forced sabbatical to dream up an epic heist of a rare necklace from the Met Gala, and, wouldn’t you know it, get a little revenge. Upon release, she promptly enlists her crew — as one usually does, in montage. With relevant, mostly exhaustive descriptors affixed, they are: , her former partner and owner of nice suits (Cate Blanchett); a passé fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter) in tax trouble; a weed-smoking hacker (Rihanna) who has a sister; a diamond expert (Mindy Kaling) looking to get away from her parent’s store; a skateboarding pickpocket (Awkwafina); and a suburban mom she knows (Sarah Paulson), who seems to generally enjoy stealing. The cast is rounded out by unwitting accomplice, a vain model (Anne Hathaway) who will get the necklace through the door.
You don’t need to know anything else about these people. They have names, allegedly, but really, who cares? Ocean’s 8 does not care.
It is a mystery how Ross and co-screenwriter Olivia Milch could lose, numerically, several supporting characters from the central team and somehow end up fleshing out the ones who remain even less. An extraordinarily brief interaction between Kaling and Awkwafina, the latter providing Tinder tips, is a highlight, simply because it provides a glimpse of some human relatability missing from the rest of the rote proceedings. The fact that a scene which occupies less than five seconds of screen time stands out isn’t a tribute to the small moments of Ocean’s 8 so much as a testimony to how empty the other 109 minutes and 55 seconds are.
In Soderbergh’s trilogy, there were identifiable individual motivations that breathed life into the larger group interactions, things like the drive of Matt Damon‘s Linus to prove himself and garner the others’ respect, which both humanized his character and frequently made him a comic foil. Even Lewis Milestone‘s quite terrible original, for all its Rat Pack machismo and meandering “hard-drinkin’, occasionally singin’, casually racistin’ Army Buddies out on the town” plotting, went out of its way to set up internal dynamics.
Ocean’s 8 has nothing along these lines, rendering the entire cast a set of interchangeables and draining any personal stakes. (Another brief interaction, this one between Bullock and Blanchett, indicates that the film remembers it ought to have subtext but can’t be much bothered with it, figuring that alluding to this structural need is the same as developing it.) Similarly, previous entries presented antagonists who structured the action, pricks to kick against, and who also grounded the films in an aspirationally criminal, eat-the-rich ethos appropriate to their historical moments. Ocean’s 8 simply posits a backstabbing ex and assures us he deserves what’s coming to him.
Both this vengeance and the heist itself seem beside the point, which begs the question, “What are we even doing here?” Perhaps it’s a hangout movie? But there’s no consistency to Debbie Ocean, much less charm. It’s fine to set her apart from her icoinc brother, but it’s never clear who she is or how we’re supposed to feel about her. It’s not even clear how Ocean’s 8 feels about her. Is she the hardened criminal who threatens her ex with a blade to his throat and jokes about intentionally getting put into solitary because it “gave her time to think”? Or the wounded soul who suddenly shifts to describing prison as a difficult trial, specifically citing the indignities of solitary? Was the first characterization a feint to cover up this pain, and the steely resolve to get revenge that it nurtured? Over the course of five years in the slammer, has she never ran across a Black person or someone with a name like “Nine Ball” or someone who speaks in a patois or someone who smokes weed – all of which leads to eye-rolling incredulity and a cringy hesitance to allow Rihanna into the crew? Or she has encountered these mysteries of the wider world, but she’s fundamentally conservative and somehow sheltered, despite apparently also running contraband behind bars? Or she’s worried about stoners messing up the gig? Or she’s just racist? And what value does she place on her pilfered poshness? “You are fascinating,” she tells Awkwafina, apparently bewildered by the notion of … what? A lack of reverence for finery? Skateboarding? Phones? Asians? Bullock’s impenetrability and contradictions don’t read as complexity; they just reflect another lazy facet of a lazy script.
So much for the characters; at least there’s a spectacle to look forward to, something high-wire and clever. But the heist itself is almost aggressive in its insistence that nothing go wrong. It simply happens, and then it’s over. (Though not before multiple trips to the bathroom; this is easily the most bathroom-focused heist in history.) Nothing breaks up its easy flow: no silly costumes, no impressive stunts, no thinking-on-their-feet or unexpected snags. It mostly hinges on a 3-D scanner and a secret lockpick, both of which are provided with all the difficulty of placing an Amazon order.
The Met Gala ought to stun with the ludicrous grandeur of high fashion, but it’s a dimly-lit, indifferently photographed room perfunctorily padded with blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em cameos. The direction and editing smother any vicarious thrill the setting or costumes might offer. In fact, the only high thing about the Gala are the busboys who briefly discuss, at a pivotal moment, smoking weed on the loading dock, in what passes for suspense here.
Some of the stars fare better than others – Paulson is always welcome, and James Corden gets the best lines, in a last gasp of narrative imported from Soderbergh’s more recent “Ocean’s 7-11” heist, Logan Lucky — but there’s just something weary in the telling and strikingly clunky in the execution. It’s a curious tone for a franchise characterized by its light, fleet tone, and for a reboot that ought to be blazing out of the gate on the charm of its cast.
“It’s the attention to the small details that really make the whole thing sing,” Hathaway, the meta-chorus of Ocean’s 8, tells us, quite meta-ly. She’s right, but she’s thinking of a different movie. Maybe Ocean’s 9? Just please put someone else in charge of the team. (And maybe make that someone one of the many, many women directors with the visual flair and energy for the material? Crazy idea, I know. Just spitballin’ here.)