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Ocean’s 8

The deeper I looked into this one, the more skeptical I got. And no, this had nothing to do with the female-dominant cast — I’m all in favor of a new Hollywood franchise led by a multigenerational roster of talented women. Granted, it’s a little weird that this is only a cast of 8 when the guys got a cast of 11 — that might have been a comment on the gender pay gap, but I’m not sure the filmmakers were that clever.

See, aside from a couple of brief and useless cameo appearances from old supporting players, I can’t find any sign that anyone from the Ocean’s trilogy was involved in this in any way. Granted, Steven Soderbergh is credited as a producer, and it’s entirely possible (knowing him) that he was involved in half a dozen different capacities under various pseudonyms. However, given Soderbergh’s vocal insistence that he was done with the franchise, I’m more inclined to believe that Soderbergh was given a producer credit out of obligation and he didn’t actually have anything to do with this picture.

Instead, Ocean’s 8 was written and directed by Gary Ross, who previously wrote and directed the just plain embarrassing Free State of Jones. He was assisted in screenplay duties by newcomer Olivia Milch, who’s currently writing the script for an upcoming Barbie movie. After an auteur like Soderbergh, this does not look like an upgrade.

Anyway, Ocean’s 8 opens on Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), the younger sister of Danny Ocean. Yes, seriously. Danny and Debby. Ugh.

We meet Debbie just before she’s released on parole after a five-year stint in prison. I won’t go into the whole story here, but suffice to say that Debbie was caught running a hustle with her old boyfriend (Claude Becker, played by Richard Armitage), and he lied his ass off to put her behind bars while he went free. So now Debbie lied her ass off to get parole, shortly after the death of her brother. Yes, George Clooney’s character was apparently killed offscreen. But because this is a con artist we’re talking about, the movie is smart enough to bring up the faint possibility that maybe he isn’t really dead.

Getting back on track, Debbie has spent her prison time formulating a perfect heist: Robbing the Met Gala for the most lucrative jewel heist in history. And all she needs is herself among a crew of eight.

  1. Bullock turns in a perfectly satisfying performance as a world-class criminal mastermind, and her opening series of petty thefts is especially fun to watch.
  2. Cate Blanchett plays Lou, this movie’s analogue for Brad Pitt. Right down to the scene in which she lectures Debbie about running a con within a con and threatening to walk away. She mostly acts as a sounding board for Debbie, but the interplay between these two characters is delightful, and it’s hard not to get caught up in Blanchett’s performance when she’s this damn cool.
  3. Anne Hathaway plays Daphne Kluger, who takes an unwitting part in the heist as the actress who gets tricked into wearing the targeted jewels. I know Hathaway has played flawed characters before (Colossal is easily my favorite example), but I’ve never seen her chew so much scenery to play such a vacuous and conceited bitch. It’s a thing of glory.
  4. Helena Bonham Carter is on hand as Rose Weil, an eccentric washed-up fashion designer. She’s in enough debt with the IRS that she agrees to take part in the heist, yet her reputation is still good enough that — with a bit of work — she’s able to get herself hired as Daphne’s designer for the Gala. Of course nobody can do ditzy and eccentric like Bonham Carter, and her established working relationship with Hathaway (through their collaborations with Tim Burton) brings a neat energy to their scenes together.
  5. Then we have Mindy Kaling as Amita, the resident jewelry expert. She gets a useless excuse for a subplot about pressure from her culture and family to get married. Still, Kaling is a welcome presence and she totally sells the character.
  6. Rihanna plays a character inexplicably nicknamed “Nine-Ball”. She’s the hacker and surveillance expert of the group, so she doesn’t really have to do much except sit around and smirk like she’s the smartest badass in the room. Given that Rihanna isn’t exactly a world-class actor on par with some of her castmates, keeping her this deep into her comfort zone was a smart call.
  7. Speaking of rappers in the cast, Akwafina is on hand as the resident pickpocket, Constance. She’s hilarious.
  8. Last but not least is Sarah Paulson in the role of Tammy, a retired fence with a sweet suburban family. She gets brought back in to take an undercover job with the Gala coordinators. Naturally, Paulson acquits herself wonderfully because she’s still one of the most underrated character actors in the business.

This cast is easily the movie’s biggest selling point. Keeping the main cast in the single digits did a lot to make sure every character had a distinctive presence and enough development to stay interesting. More importantly, these women are clearly having the time of their lives. This is definitely one of those movies that are so much fun because everyone involved is having so much fun.

Unfortunately, while the male actors in the cast are clearly having a great time as well, they don’t have nearly as much to work with. Richard Armitage is clearly trying to play Claude as a total sleazeball, but he doesn’t have enough screen time to make a solid impression, and he isn’t quite awful enough or fleshed-out enough that I was rooting for him to suffer. Yes, I get that Debbie hates him for sending her to prison and breaking her heart, but I couldn’t care about him enough to share in that hatred or get any kind of satisfaction in watching her move against him.

That said, it was rather amusing for the Julia Roberts analogue to be an old flame whom the protagonist is looking to get revenge against, instead of an old flame whom the protagonist is trying to win back. That’s a neat little reversal.

Then we have James Corden, appearing as the bumbling detective who serves as an insurance investigator. He doesn’t even show up until the third act, so of course the character doesn’t have much screen time to leave any kind of impact, but that’s certainly not for lack of trying on Corden’s part. The character is funny and actually quite smart, but he’s not any kind of legitimate antagonist to our crew. Never at any time is there any reason to think that he could plausibly find and capture our band of criminals.

That’s a problem that deeply permeates the entire movie, by the way: This whole heist is entirely too easy. Some obstacles were absurdly and laughably simple, such as the senior employee of a motherfucking security firm whom I guess was genetically engineered to fall for the most transparent phishing scheme imaginable. And most of the time, some unforeseen wrinkle crops up only to be resolved in five minutes like it was never a problem at all.

Admittedly, there are one or two fantastic reveals that are cleverly set up and effectively paid off. Otherwise, the heist more or less glides along on rails and everything goes exactly as planned. And when the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen long before it actually does, that’s kind of a fatal error for a crime thriller.

For miscellaneous notes, the filmmakers tended to use split screen and other “PowerPoint slide show” transitions between cuts. It’s like the filmmakers were trying to be stylish, but it’s just annoying. That said, the movie otherwise looked quite good, and the score was pretty decent.

Oh, and I want to state this again so it’s absolutely clear: The connection to Ocean’s 11 is so tenuous that it may as well not be there. The cameo appearances are so inconsequential and unnecessary that they may as well have been cut entirely. (I seriously got a bigger kick out of the cameo actors who showed up playing themselves.) This movie does not advance the franchise or enrich the previous trilogy in any way. The one and only thing that the connection does is that it gives our protagonist a criminal lineage that we immediately recognize and respect without a word of exposition. And that still doesn’t stop all the exposition about Danny Ocean’s criminal reputation and Debbie’s connection with him. So really, the net losses far outweigh the net gains.

Ocean’s 8 is a fun little movie, don’t get me wrong. It’s a superbly talented cast trading banter as they carry out an intricate jewel heist, so of course it’s going to be funny and exciting on some level. However, I get the strong sense that Gary Ross could have filmed these exact same actors talking unscripted over lunch for two hours, and it would have been just as entertaining. Furthermore, it bugs me how the characters never seem to encounter any kind of significant setback or legitimate threat to their success, and any connection to the previous franchise is entirely useless.

I have a very difficult time giving this a recommendation. But seriously, the cast alone makes this movie worth a look on second-run or streaming.

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