From left, Sarah Paulson, Sandra Bullock, Rihanna.
Ocean’s 8 opens with a familiar setup: Debbie Ocean, sister and inheritor of her brother Danny’s con-person mantle, is let out of prison on parole, and despite all her earnest proclamations about wanting to start an honest life, doesn’t miss a beat getting right back into the game. Some people are born to con, the film tells us, and the impulse in this case seems to be hereditary. Wearing the same slinky black number we later find out she was arrested in for art-trade fraud, she hits up Bergdorf’s and waltzes out with a security-tag-adorned new wardrobe; she impersonates her way into a posh uptown hotel. Grifts are hot right now, and these low-stakes scams — just a steely-faced Bullock willing her material life back into place — are where the film feels the most energized. Unfortunately, by the time she’s ready to set out on the central heist, the film has lost most of that steam.
The deck is stacked so incredibly in 8’s favor that this feels like an algorithmic improbability. Illuminated by an extremely hype cast — Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, and ascendant rapper Awkwafina, among a few — it’s been primed to represent a cross section of the possibilities of female glamour in 2018. The film has intrinsically been proposed as more than just a fun summer heist movie; it’s a symbolic balm for all the ills of a male-dominated Hollywood that have dominated the news for nearly a year. The idea that this diverse group of women would all have a reason to want to rip off the system feels like some kind of elaborate wish-fulfillment fanfiction. But in its actual form, it doesn’t feel like much more than a thrown bone.
Debbie’s idea is to steal a priceless diamond necklace using the glitzy excess of the annual Met Gala as cover. The scheme involves getting a narcissistic actress to wear it to the Ball, and a series of elaborate maneuvers to sleight-of-hand it off her and replace it with a fake. One of the film’s more brilliant moves is having Anne Hathaway play that actress, whose hammy cravenness gamely sends up every public opinion about her. She is, in a surprising but not at all unwelcome way, the MVP of the film; Awkwafina’s skateboarding pickpocket also injects some much-needed loosey-goosey energy into the mix. Other members of the team, including Helena Bonham Carter as a down-on-her-luck fashion designer, and Sarah Paulson as a thief turned suburban mom who now runs a Vitamix-running black market scheme out of her garage, are great concepts that never seem to be able to overcome the limp dialogue given to them on paper.
This is the weird thing: For all the noise around its casting and even its very existence, Ocean’s 8 is a surprisingly quiet movie. Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies (which 8 is far more in conversation with than the original Frank Sinatra film) had a kind of lazy masculine luxury about them, a manspread in the finest Italian tailored suit. Ocean’s 8, directed with workaday flatness by Gary Ross, never revs up an equivalent sort of confidence among its seemingly bountiful ensemble of personalities. All its getting-the-gang-together scenes — which should be half the fun of this kind of joint — feel airless, conducted in soundproof rooms devoid of ambience or texture or jokes. Soderbergh’s films may have been pure bantering fantasy, but at least Ocean’s Eleven really felt like it took place in Las Vegas. This New York City feels bereft of all the manic energy that should be the reason for setting a heist there in the first place.
All this aside, the appeal of the film should just be watching these cool ladies be really competent at screwing over the man, here represented by Anna Wintour and the good people of Société Cartier. But a third-act twist — while delightful in the moment — ends up undercutting even that premise, leaving you wondering if anyone in Debbie’s crew knew what they were doing all along. A flabby final chapter involving James Corden as the detective assigned to the robbery feels like a wild miscalculation — after vastly underusing Rihanna, of all people, you’re going to bring James Corden in to finish the job? And you’re going to give him the one-liners that have been missing from the rest of the film? Who wants to see that? 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.