Ocean’s 8 is good, but not great, fun, but not as much as you want it to be and rather lacking in worthy characters beyond Anne Hathaway’s scene-stealing turn as a ditzy actress who’s smarter than she lets on. Is that a failing on the part of the filmmakers? Or have we just forgotten what an Ocean’s movie looks like? I re-watched Ocean’s 11 to find out.
The Ocean’s 11 movies, at least as reconstituted by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney at the start of the new millennium, were never about plot, character, or dramatic stakes. As Roger Ebert said of their first Ocean’s entry, “This is not a movie about suspense but about suavity.” Clooney and Julia Roberts bickered like Bogey and Bacall while looking as elegant as Grant and Bergman. Andy Garcia, smooth and collected as the villain, was practically poured into his six figure suits. Brad Pitt, nonchalantly eating in just about every single scene, exuded cool. The rest of the ensemble all followed his lead, clear in their marching orders: above all else, always remember to look cool and never let on how much fun you’re having.
A modern re-watch of their Ocean’s 11 makes all of that abundantly clear and reveals just how inconsequential it is as a movie. Well put together? Absolutely. Slick? Masterfully so. But it’s also a triumph of style, which it has in spades, over substance, which it crams into the Roberts/Clooney love story. That dialogue free ending with everyone watching the Bellagio fountain show is still an all-timer, and there are hints of a film yearning to transcend its genre. Ultimately, though, Ocean’s 11 is a neat little heist movie that improbably became a box office sensation and has since turned into everyone’s reference point for the genre, to the point that Soderbergh himself name-checks it in his arguably superior 2017 heist flick Logan Lucky.
This helps better explain why Ocean’s 8, the Gary Ross-directed and Sandra Bullock/Cate Blanchett-headlined all-female spin-off, might initially feel so underwhelming. The thin characterizations, abrupt dialogue, immediate plunge into the process of it all – assembling the team, communicating the basics, but never the entirety of the plan, preparing for the heist, mid-movie twist about Debbie’s secret personal stake in everything – that’s all vintage Ocean’s. Ross and his co-writer Olivia Milch aren’t exactly looking to reinvent the wheel here. Tweak it a little, sure, but they mostly just want to make a solid Ocean’s movie which happens to be the female alternative to the original trilogy’s noted sausage fest.
Thus, we start exactly where this whole rebooted franchise began – with a member of the Ocean family in prison. This time it’s Danny’s sister Debbie, duping a parole board into letting her out after serving “five years, eight months, and 12 days.” After grifting her way into a new set of clothes and five-star hotel room, she reconnects with her old partner Lou (Cate Blanchett, clearly channelling Brad Pitt’s Rusty), who has moved on from their old bingo hall cons into running a trendy nightclub and hawking watered down vodka to millennials who are too drunk to notice. Just like Danny before her, Debbie spent her time in prison planning the biggest job of her career: the Met Gala.
Thus, we have the job, the target, and the potential payout. Next, we need a team, which leads us to their fence (Sarah Paulson’s suburban mom Tammy), thief (Awkwafina’s street hustler Constance), hacker (Rihanna’s Nine Ball), inside woman (Helena Bonham Carter’s Rose Weil, a down-on-her-luck fashion designer) and mule (Anne Hathaway’s seemingly clueless Daphne Kluger, who will be wearing the necklace to the Gala at Weil’s insistence). Plus, there’s Mindy Kaling’s Amita, a jewelry maker they’ll need to cut the necklace into smaller pieces after they’ve lifted it. Honestly, the trailer makes this recruitment section of the film seem a bit more fun than it actually is:
In fact, that trailer, which has been viewed over 12 million times, bustles with more style than the finished film. None of that retro split-screen work, clearly indebted to Soderbergh’s style, is in the actual movie. Instead, you get Gary Ross’s rather workmanlike camera movements and editing.
Predictably, Ocean’s 8 becomes infinitely more entertaining once the actual heist arrives, but there is a problem in that there aren’t nearly enough problems. That is to say, the heist goes off far too easily. Ross and Milch opted against giving the team a real villain to rally against, and without an Andy Garcia-type constantly threatening to catch onto them or standing in their way as a plot obstacle the heist mostly comes down to watching Debbie’s intricate plan come together despite a couple of minor hitches. They try to inject some character drama by giving Debbie a side revenge scheme against an art-dealing ex-boyfriend (Richard Armitage) who done her wrong, but it’s a poor substitute if their goal was to make something with any real tension.
However, the Ocean’s movies, as I said at the beginning, don’t prioritize little things like that. Some of them try a little harder at building tension than the others, but the larger goal is to be suave, not suspenseful. Just embrace the joy of watching a plan come together and don’t skimp on the costume department’s budget.
To that end, Ocean’s 8 certainly succeeds. Bullock and Blanchett really are just doing the Clooney/Pitt thing, but damn they look good doing it. The rest of the ensemble each get a moment or two to shine, and they all look amazing when their characters finally get to dress up for the Met. The script gives each of them a tad more shading than Ted Griffin’s screenplay ever did for the extended Ocean’s 11 crew, but that’s not saying much. Hathaway steals the show, though, as arguably the most thought-out character of the bunch, playfully vapid, but ever-observant and not to be underestimated.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If the Ocean’s movies were always an excuse for George Clooney and his famous guy friends to play dress-up and look cool, Sandra Bullock and her crew earn their seat at the roulette table, although the lack of a traditional antagonist robs their story of some much-needed tension. It’s just taken me this long to realize how thin all of these Ocean’s movies really are.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- For those crying foul about this being an all-female spin-off as opposed to mixed gender, the script actually hangs a lantern on that, with Bullock at one point explaining the team needs to be all-female. Many of them will have to pose as wait staff at the Met, and she reasons a man on their team will have a higher chance of being noticed than a female.
- As per Ocean’s movie tradition, there is one character who seems to be eating in just about every one of her scenes, and this time it’s Debbie.
- There are some very small cameos from the other Ocean’s movies, but they are few and far between. So, don’t go in expecting Ocean’s 8 to have some great, big connective tissue to what came before. It really is just a spin-off about Danny’s sister.
- A nice running joke: everyone immediately wonders how high Lou’s heating bill must be for the improbably spacious building they use as their base of operations.