The cast is game, but this lightweight caper only barely lives up to its potential.
Why do you need to do this? –Lou
It’s what I’m good at. –Debbie
I’ll admit, I was an easy mark for this. I’ve written often about my love for the Ocean’s series, and of heist films in general. I love all of the beats — getting the team together, the execution, the switchbacks and double-crosses, the improbable getaway — and I’ll show up whether it’s serious, like Rififi or Le Cercle Rouge (the French really knew how to do it, huh?) or screwball. Steven Soderbergh’s trilogy radiated cool. Even when it got a little bit too indulgent, like the naval-gazing, heavily-meta Twelve, Messrs. Clooney, Pitt, Damon, et al. were our pals, or at least we watched the idealized versions of these handsome men and imagined them that way. They were the original Avengers, as Alissa Wilkinson smartly observed at Vox. (Thirteen is my favorite, which I find difficult to explain, but I stand by it.)
I also enjoyed Soderbergh’s return to the genre with last year’s Logan Lucky, but it’s the eye-popping Hollywood glamour that distinguishes the Ocean’s films, and I always hoped he’d get the gang back together for one last job. The next best thing, though, is the gender-flipped Eight — provided, anyway, that it maintained the effervescence and effortlessness that has been the series’s warp and woof. It doesn’t quite, though. It comes close, and it’s absolutely no fault of the starry cast, who do their darndest to make cardboard cutouts of characters (with a few exceptions, which I’ll get to) into something more real.
I did occur to me that it wasn’t fair to judge three movies of built-up chemistry against one, and that Clooney’s crew was also coasting on their inherent likability in lieu of character development. Here as well, much of the fun comes from watching actresses we like look great while doing crimes. But Eleven is also one of the most rewatchable films ever made, endlessly quotable with style to burn, and Eight would have to have been something truly special to rival it. I hoped for a fun caper with some good banter, a couple of good twists, and validation for its feminist approach. On that, it delivered, but beyond that, the film isn’t anything special, and you may only need to notice the Y chromosome of the film’s director and co-writer, Gary Ross, to wonder why.
Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, who like her brother gets out of the joint having had enough time to come up with a perfect plan: stealing royal diamonds at this year’s Met Gala. She rounds up Point Woman/likely lover Lou (Cate Blanchett, who goes through outfits like Pitt went through snacks), “retired” Scrounger Tammy (Sarah Paulson), dreadlocked Hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna!), a jeweler (Mindy Kaling), and a pickpocket (Awkwafina). The plan is to arrange for the neurotic and deeply indebted Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter) to design the Gala dress for a vapid starlet (Anne Hathaway), with the diamonds in question as the ensemble’s piece de resistance. If any of that was confusing, don’t worry, because Gary Ross and Olivia Milch’s script lays it all out for you, and then does it again a few scenes later.
Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) is, to be generous, an unlikely choice for this. Where Soderbergh kept things fresh each go-round by letting his cast riff and making creative choices with staging, editing, and music cues, Eight plays like a cover band. The ingredients are there — split-screens and wipes, a score from Daniel Pemberton that pays homage to David Holmes’s distinctive jazz, 70s-style zooms — but there’s nothing unexpected about the delivery, nor does it generate any tension. It’s slack, especially in the middle third. Bullock underplays Debbie just like Clooney, and she has great chemistry with Blanchett, but Ross doesn’t give them moments to just be fun together without having to service the film’s convoluted plot. There’s no goofy con shorthand, no non sequiters; everything is text.
I realize I’m making the complaint that the film is too efficient, too direct. The film has three fewer crew members than Eleven but it’s only five minutes shorter. There’s too much to do, and not enough of it is funny. But there is one clear winner, and it’s Anne Hathaway. The Oscar winner has had a rough last few years, and it’s not really her fault. I’ve often wondered why we celebrate painful theater-kid earnestness from, say, Tom Holland, but Hathaway gets savaged. No, I do know why. But in any case, Hathaway does a brave thing here and steers directly into that persona as Daphne Kluger, the insufferable, doe-eyed cream of the Hollywood A-list, the only star bright enough to order the Toussaint necklace out of its vault. Hathaway pulls off the real heist by walking off with the film, and it’s her skill as the mark that makes up for Eight’s lack of a hissable villain like Andy Garcia.
Rihanna and Awkwafina fans will also have a lot to like, and even James Corden delivers a few big laughs when he shows up in the third act. There are a couple of fun cameos from the original cast. The film is enjoyable. But it should have been more, considering the point it’s trying to prove. Emily Yoshida at Vulture said it best: “I left Ocean’s 8 more convinced than ever that no amount of fierce, fantastic female ensembles can overcome the mediocrity of a dull male director.” I’ll show up for an Ocean’s Nine, of course, for the reasons I gave in the opening paragraph. But without giving anything away, the film’s final moments are representative of the entire experience: a tease, anticipation, and then a sad realization that this is probably all we’re going to get.