For a proper heist to be pulled off successfully, every element must be executed flawlessly. We know that much from watching, well, the Ocean movies, Steven Soderbergh’s jazzy-sexy crime trilogy from the turn of the millennium.
The women in the Ocean’s 8 all-female spinoff of the popular George Clooney-Matt Damon movie-star bonanza rise to their replacement positions gamely, injecting their caper with the flair, showmanship, and mischief you’d expect from the blinding constellation of stars: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and Rihanna among them. In fact, they’re so game and so assured in their slick superstardom that the heist—and the movie—work despite some baffling, near-disastrous hiccups in the plan.
Watch the buzzy trailer that debuted earlier this year and look at that dream of a cast list—Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter, Awkwafina, Sarah Paulson, a scene-stealing James Corden—and it becomes almost inexcusable how lethargic the film’s direction and editing is—the director and co-writer this time is Gary Ross (Hunger Games, Seabiscuit)—and how convoluted and energy-zapped the robbery itself is. But, for our money—and, honestly, we would gladly be burgled for any amount if it meant getting these ladies on screen together—it’s a downright magical performance by Anne Hathaway that rescues the film from its sleepiness and makes off with all the jewels.
It’s tempting to say that Hathaway is the best she’s been in years, playing a petulant movie star desperate for attention, but that would frankly be ludicrous. We won’t re-litigate the misogynist dissection of Hathaway’s public-facing personality that suffocated all the joy out of her Les Miserables awards run in 2013. But there was something about that unholy mess of a media cycle that had the effect of dismissing her talents. She’s since proven herself as skilled at selling the broad (The Intern) as well as the nuanced and strange (Colossal), and Ocean’s 8 unexpectedly demands both of her.
She plays the fantastically named Daphne Kluger, the film’s fictional It Starlet, calibrating a triumph of actress-y camp that hammers every hilarious note on its way to, without spoiling much, a shaded portrait of a woman far more aware of how society views her than others—and the Ocean’s 8 audience—give her credit for. The added meta layer of it being Hathaway who carries that arc should trigger a well-timed guilt complex: We keep underestimating and making false assumptions about women. Perennially, it’s crass. Increasingly, it’s to our own peril.
The film kicks off with Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean, sister to Clooney’s Danny Ocean, a fellow convict being released from prison on account of good behavior. She wastes no time returning to the family business, shoplifting through Bergdorf’s and conning her way into a new hotel room and wardrobe before reuniting with her former partner-in-crime, Cate Blanchett’s Lou. Blanchett manifests what could only have been her character description: “the most intimidatingly cool person any of us will ever meet; owns many fabulous coats.”
No one would accuse this script of being a master class in character development, so we’ll just skip to the part where Debbie starts assembling her team of crime Avengers. You’ll likely end up twiddling your thumbs waiting for the film to get there, too.
There’s Mindy Kaling’s Amita, an expert jeweler from Queens desperate to escape her overbearing mother. Sarah Paulson’s Tammy is a suburban housewife with an unexpected knack for fencing stolen goods. Breakout star Awkwafina is Constance, an ace pick-pocket, and Rihanna’s Nine Ball is a hacker extraordinaire.
Completing the team is Helena Bonham Carter’s Rose Weil, a washed-up Irish fashion designer who owes the IRS $5 million in back taxes, and who is the key to the whole plan. The women are going to rob the annual Met Gala. Rather, they’re going to conduct a robbery at the Met Gala. The plan is to convince Hathaway’s Daphne Kluger to hire Bonham Carter’s Rose Weil to design her gown and then trick Cartier into loaning Daphne a rare $150 million diamond necklace for the event—which the team will then lift right from her neck.
This all sounds like a blast: Bullock! Blanchett! Rihanna hacking a security system while smoking a fat joint! The Met Gala!!! But the film never accelerates to the breakneck speed at which Soderbergh’s films moved, nor to what's necessary to ascend to the level of that plot description. An air of playfulness is confusingly missing from the screenplay.
Thankfully, when you cast these actresses, who don’t just know their way around a performance but also around the mood a film should give off, you make up for that in spades.
There’s an assuredness in their character turns from the top down, starting with Bullock’s Debbie Ocean. It’s a role that the Oscar-winner could play in her sleep, making it all the more delightful that she zaps it with such shrewd vitality. Debbie is a ballbuster with Teflon confidence in her ability to do what she is good at, and she is damn good at stealing.
She landed in jail because she was betrayed by someone she thought loved her, not because she wasn’t a boss at her job. That unquestioned competence is something perennially delightful to see onscreen, but especially in 2018, even if that job involves robbery. The Sandra Bullock Stare of Confidence, a face-off she has with multiple characters in the movie who dare doubt her, is the film’s most explosive special effect.
For all the ways in which Hathaway underlines why she’s a goddamn star, people, Awkwafina is a revelation. The Queens-born rapper-actress is the least-known of the fantasy cast, but still commands her light in the spillover of all their star power, delivering some of the best line readings of the movie.
But this is a true ensemble and, to that end, it’s impossible to not feel—hokey as it sounds—privileged just to watch all these actresses in the same film.
Hathaway and Bonham Carter have an extended physical comedy bit so skilled, kooky, and charming that you wonder why it’s still such a novel idea to have actresses as proven as they are in films together doing extended physical comedy bits! At one point Kaling and Awkwafina share a bonding scene, and you’re first struck by how sweet and well-played it is, and then by how meaningful it is to have these two minority actresses in a scene together at all in a studio film.
There is a slew of celebrity cameos, some baffling but endearing (Katie Holmes? Dakota Fanning? All right!) and some wasted (spot-the-Kardashian isn’t nearly as fun as you’d think). Timely quips about Russia and journalists will tickle audiences. As a critic, however, we found ourselves not so much laughing throughout the film as we were breathing sighs of relief.
We remember what happened the last time a gender-flipped take on a popular franchise was attempted. The reaction to and ultimate failure of the all-female Ghostbusters reboot is the kind of bananas pop culture fever dream we still can’t quite wrap our heads around, but which still served as a cautionary tale for this Ocean’s 8 experiment. If this didn’t work, would anyone take a chance on an all-female studio tentpole again? We have our quibbles with it, but the sheer event of it all is still worth the price of ticket alone. Dear god, make more of these!
When the film’s premise was announced, there were those who wondered why an Ocean’s film starring women had to center on diamonds and fashion instead of something less stereotypically gendered, and the answer is quite simply that diamonds and fashion are effing cool. Did anyone dumping on the decision to parade these actresses in breathtaking ball gowns also criticize the budget devoted to George Clooney’s bespoke designer suits in the last franchise?
That the film embraces its femininity while making a loud statement about the ways in which Hollywood dismisses female power is actually transgressive in its own right. By all accounts on the press tour, the actresses involved had a blast with the fashion, which is a boon for Ocean’s 8 in a way that so many movies and filmmakers ignore: A good time is contagious!
There’s a line midway through the film that might just serve not only as the movie’s thesis, but maybe its broader cultural mission statement—and, let’s face it, this movie’s entire inception, execution, and ultimate critical and audience reaction is inextricable from a political statement it hopes to make.
Bullock’s Debbie Ocean is explaining to Blanchett’s Lou why she doesn’t want a man on the team when they attempt their Met Gala heist. “A Him gets noticed, a Her gets ignored,” she says. “For once we want to be ignored.”
With that, Ocean’s 8 makes the case for why we should all be paying attention—and buying tickets.