Getting an in-continuity, all-female addition to the Ocean’s franchise is a neat idea. Getting one that stars Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean (sister of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean), plus Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, and goddamn Rihanna as her con crew? That is some shit to be excited about. And it works! That lineup alone is reason to see this film. They are dynamite together, and I could have happily kept my butt in that theater seat to watch a few more hours of them (especially Cate Blanchett, but I’ll get to that). The problem is that if I were to say “The cast is the best thing about this movie”, you might think “well duh — LOOKIT THAT CAST. Of course they’re the best!” But what I mean is that they’re the best because they’re, you know, Sandra Bullock/ Cate Blanchett/ Anne Hathaway/ Helena Bonham Carter/ Mindy Kaling/ Sarah Paulson/ Awkwafina/ Rihanna, and also because the story and direction are pretty lackluster.
“Workmanlike” was the term that stuck in my mind regarding overall look of the film. Gary Ross (Pleasantville, The Hunger Games) directed the film and also co-wrote it, and he did a fine job. But it’s no easy thing to build on a trilogy that’s inescapably stamped by the style of Steven Soderbergh, and in that respect, “fine” feels like a let down — especially when given the opportunity to offer a whole new look and feel to this lineup of awesome lady criminals. The score and the music choices do a lot to fill that gap and inject some energy, but other than some wipe transitions between shots, there’s hardly any style to speak of. The Ocean’s films have always had great casts to lean on, but they weren’t doing all of the heavy lifting alone. Soderbergh himself was an unseen star, creating that aura of winking, effortless cool that the actors moved through. And for better or for worse, the Ocean’s films have helped define what the audience expects from a heist film. There needs to be twists — elements of the con that are initially hidden, but fit in seamlessly with our understanding of the events when they are finally revealed at the end. There have to be last-minute challenges to the plan that the crew has to overcome on wits alone. And to make those things feel smart and earned, the script and directing have to lead the way — usually through misdirection and thinking 5 steps ahead of us.
Ocean’s 8 has those twists and challenges, but they are kinda lazy if I’m being honest. One big reveal at the end, if you think about it hard enough, basically ruins the entire premise that Debbie Ocean planned this heist during her 5 years in prison, if for no other reason than the yearly Met Gala theme isn’t known that far in advance. Oh right, the plot: Debbie Ocean, like most of her family, is a gifted criminal. The film begins with her release from prison, at which point she immediately starts putting together a crew to pull off the heist she’s been dreaming up during her incarceration: stealing a ridiculously expensive Cartier necklace from the Met Gala. Obviously, the plot is a mirror of her brother Danny’s journey in Ocean’s Eleven, right down to the secret motivation involving a past romantic interest (though in her case it’s more of a revenge story than a love story). Debbie’s first stop? Reconnecting with her longtime partner Lou (Blanchett), who runs a club and seems to spend most of her time dreaming about riding her motorcycle around the world while supervising the watering-down of all the vodka in the joint.
And here’s where I confess that last night, in that theater, Cate Blanchett singlehandedly shifted me a few points up the Kinsey scale. Part of it is the costuming — lots of tailored velvet suits and plunging necklines — but most of it is just indelibly HER. The way she swaggered in those suits. The way she lounged during the heist planning sessions, like she was practicing to play Jareth in a reboot of Labyrinth. The looks she shot Debbie made me hope the end of the movie would involve those two riding a motorcycle off into the sunset, but fuck — she could have taken off with Rihanna for all I cared. She could have taken off with ME. Cate Blanchett is the hottest thing I’ve ever seen, and (pay attention, Hollywood) she was fully clothed THE ENTIRE TIME. Attitude counts for everything, friends.
As for the rest of the crew, they come into the fold either as old acquaintances or new finds. Mindy Kaling is the jewelry expert. Awkwafina is the street hustler with fast hands. Sarah Paulson is a bored suburban mom who hasn’t entirely left behind her instincts as a black market dealer (she just works out of her own garage now). Helena Bonham Carter plays the washed-up fashion designer with Anna Wintour connections and a vast amount of debt. Rihanna mostly plays everyone’s mental image of Rihanna, but in this case, she’s a mysterious stoner hacker who gives zero fucks.
And Anne Hathaway almost steals the show (except, you know, BLANCHETT) as the narcissistic yet surprisingly shrewd starlet whom they need to dress for the Gala, in order to gain access to the necklace. She’s legit funny! But I also wonder if, had more space been given to some of the other characters, they too might have walked away from the film. Sadly, no matter how delightful the majority of Ocean’s titular 8 are, they wind up underused. Then again, that’s not actually unusual given the sprawling casts in the Ocean’s franchise — I never felt like we got enough of Don Cheadle either. And I suppose now would be the time to talk about cameos, but I don’t want to spoil anything with specifics so I’ll just say: yes, you do see a couple of characters from the earlier films, but credit where credit’s due — they don’t detract from the proceedings. They are nice nods, but this is truly Debbie’s show, and she doesn’t have room for men on her crew because they draw too much attention.
And actually, “drawing too much attention” may be why Matt Damon is NOT one of the familiar faces you’ll see in the film. In February, Damon revealed to the Toronto Sun that he filmed a small cameo for the film, and while I’m not sure exactly why it ended up on the cutting room floor, I can’t help but wonder if his habit of sticking his foot in his mouth repeatedly over the past year might have had something to do with it. Or maybe it was that online petition to have him removed. Or maybe it was just unnecessary, and we got an additional deadpan Kaling response instead of wasting any seconds of screen time on Linus Caldwell.
Look, if it sounds like I’m being harsh then let me say that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. It’s fun! It’ll put a smile on your face! I’m glad it’s a thing that exists, so please go see it and throw all of your money at it! Because getting a cast of women of this caliber and diversity together to play funny, smart, capable, and interesting characters is exciting, and Ocean’s 8 a great start. In fact, I want there to be sequels. And then I want those sequels to be as smart and funny and capable as this incredible cast is. I want a unique style. I want earned twists. I want a film that doesn’t coast on the appeal of its actors but instead elevates them. The potential is already there.