Almost as soon as Anne Hathaway appears onscreen in Ocean’s 8, you realize that she’s playing herself. To be fair, her character, the actress Daphne Kluger, is less an exact parody of Anne Hathaway, and more the idea of Anne Hathaway, refracted through the fun house mirror of celebrity obsession. She’s obsessed with her looks, her fame, and her décolletage — made clear by the fact that Hathaway spends most of the movie touching her neck. Ocean’s 8 has plenty of charms, but nothing in the movie shines brighter than Anne Hathaway’s performance as “Anne Hathaway,” the frequent object of tabloid derision, whom she’s having a hell of a time sending up.
At first, you might worry that Ocean’s 8 puts Hathaway at a disadvantage: She’s technically the target of the movie’s heist, and therefore left out of the con itself. But she gets copious screentime during which to act utterly, delightfully ridiculous. For the film’s central scheme to work, Sandra Bullock and her various friends in nice coats have to convince Hathaway’s Daphne to wear a priceless necklace to the Met Ball, so that they can rob it directly off of her body at the event. To accomplish this, they need their cohort, has-been fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter, doing an Irish accent just because), to dress her.
The dynamic lets Hathaway perform arpeggios of jealousy, insecurity, and impertinence as Rose and the rest of the crime team try to appease her. Daphne hears Rose might dress another, significantly younger movie star (I won’t spoil the cameo stunt casting), and freaks out, and demands to get her meeting with the designer. When an assistant mentions how Daphne had recently said Rose’s designs were “out-of-date,” she steams, “I said ‘iconic.’” From there, the mood swings continue: Daphne loves the necklace. Daphne hates the necklace. Every time Daphne flits off course, the whole heist might topple with her — and boy, does Hathaway love to make her flit.
The joy of Hathaway’s performance isn’t that she’s playing a dumb bimbo — as the movie makes clear, there’s more to Daphne than meets the eye — but that she’s found a way to hone in on the surreal obsessions and obligations of celebrity. Daphne frequently wonders if her features are somehow “too large.” She tells stories that are as boring as they are full of dropped names. She constantly seems to be looking for a way to find her reflection (again, she is utterly transfixed by her neck). At an Ocean’s 8 press conference, Hathaway described getting into character as Daphne as “what would have happened, if at the beginning of my career I thought of fame as something that was real.” In Hathaway’s hands/neck, Daphne is less a dimwit and more someone who kept playing the game — until she, and it, stopped making sense.
Anne Hathaway, more than most people, must know that being famous is like being a target of a con you never agreed to participate in. Five years out, it sometimes still feels like she’s trudging through the fog of derision that enveloped her during her Oscar campaign for Les Misérables. A try-hard theater kid at heart, Hathaway was an easy target, and it always seemed like open season on her. But aside from having specific demands about her eggs, Hathaway didn’t do much wrong except try too hard, want too much, and — here’s the real mistake — let the effort show. That infamous “it came true” Oscar speech was supposedly a sign of the real Anne Hathaway, a glimmer revealing that, underneath it all, she wasn’t the aw-shucks sweetheart she pretended to be — as an ingenue, to want things and not just stumble into them was somehow unforgivable. That she later admitted that she was faking her emotions makes the hate all the more absurd; you’re not going to get authenticity from a movie star when a camera’s on them. Just ask Daphne Kluger.
In Ocean’s 8, Hathaway knows better than to judge Daphne for that. There’s something desperate in Daphne’s neediness — her desire to look just right, her fretting about whether that necklace is too big for her dress — that, you realize, is also crucial to Daphne’s livelihood. Daphne’s world runs on a Furby-like need for comfort and affirmation, no matter how superficial. In one scene, she tries a pink lipstick that Helena Bonham Carter tells her makes her look like “Barbie, in a good way.” “Thank you,” Daphne answers, in a nervous yet self-satisfied way, and you might remember that she’s supposed to be playing that doll in a movie sometime soon.
In many ways, Hathaway’s performance in Ocean’s 8 feels akin to Michelle Williams’s human embodiment of vocal fry in I Feel Pretty. Both actresses, who have more than proved their dramatic chops, exaggerate typically derided aspects of feminine performance until they become big, strange, and winning. It’s more purposeful than camp: comedy by way of reclamation.
Hathaway did something similar while playing a hateable, yet vindicated lead character in Colossal, but in Ocean’s 8, she sticks to pure comedy. It’s a winning performance for all of its winking, meta reasons, but also because of her timing, her gestures, and her ability to contour Daphne’s body like she’s constantly finding a flattering angle for a paparazzi’s lens. The movie lights up every second she’s onscreen — but then again, of course it does. She’s Anne Hathaway. She’s always going to put in the work.