“Don’t do this for me. Don’t do this for you,” Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) tells the women on her crew while running a final check before the intricately planned heist that drives Ocean’s 8. “Somewhere out there is an 8-year-old girl lying in bed dreaming of being a criminal. Let’s do this for her.” That droll twist on female empowerment, a fierce lineup of talented women and a whole heap of sparkly glamour make this spinoff of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy go down easily — not to mention the pleasurable frisson of watching whip-smart ladies in fabulous outfits steal astronomically valuable bling. But director Gary Ross was the wrong guy for a wholesale franchise reinvention.
The novelty value is not to be underestimated of a starry all-female cast playing badass scammers, knocking off more diamonds than Lorelei Lee ever dreamed of from that most exclusive annual orgy of high-fashion excess, the Met Gala. And having one of that event’s most reliable scene-stealers, Rihanna, play a supremely accomplished hacker rocking a righteous mane of dreads was a cute touch. All that plus the timing of a big-budget studio feature about women with agency and attitude, amid an unprecedented push for more female-forward storytelling, should deliver Warner Bros.’ early summer release an audience.
More gloss and glitter than actual jewels.
But this is a self-satisfied exercise that’s only occasionally as much fun as it thinks it is. Ross and co-writer Olivia Milch stick to the template of Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh’s first and best overhaul of the 1960 Rat Pack vehicle. This time around it’s Debbie, sister of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean, who masterminds the heist. She reteams with former partner in crime Lou (Cate Blanchett), recruits a crew of specialists and only later reveals an ulterior motive in her plan. That would be to frame high-end art dealer Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), the ex-lover who let her take the fall for a massive con that landed her a five-year prison term. Time’s up.
Rather than reimagining them as newly minted characters, Ross locks himself into a limiting corner by treating Debbie and Lou strictly as female clones of Clooney’s Danny and Brad Pitt’s Rusty Ryan in the earlier films. The whole point of rebuilding the glamorous crime caper around women should be to make them different. But although they swap tuxedos for couture gowns and heels — or in biker chick Lou’s case, slinky pantsuits and a razor-cut shag — the dynamic lacks freshness.
Even when the stakes are at their highest, the leads’ delivery is cooler-than-thou, tongue-in-cheek deadpan, accompanied by smug half-smiles, which frankly, gets a bit one-note tiresome and self-conscious. Blanchett’s relaxed swagger at least indicates that she seems to be enjoying herself, at one amusing point going undercover in a halal food truck. But Bullock’s performance feels stiff despite the character’s take-charge confidence.
Luckily, the supporting ranks bring more distinctive spice. The funniest standout by virtue of her homegirl insouciance and wiry physicality is Awkwafina as nimble-fingered Queens street hustler and pickpocket extraordinaire Constance. Having her request a MetroCard as an advance on her cut of a $150 million job — rather than skateboarding into Manhattan every day — is one of the script’s more inspired moments.
As the unflappable computer genius known as Nine Ball, Rihanna also has an appealing presence and an impeccable command of the side-eye double take. Anne Hathaway gets laughs as movie star and Met Gala chair Daphne Kluger, infectiously making fun of herself in a subtly screwy parody of actressy vanity with an unexpected wild side. She’s particularly hilarious writhing with sensual pleasure once she feels the weight of vintage Cartier ice around her neck. And James Corden as an insurance assessor brings a needling sense of mischief to the late action.
Mindy Kaling is given less to do as a jewelry expert, and most disappointingly, Sarah Paulson’s considerable gifts are underutilized in a role that doesn’t go much beyond the jokey incongruity of a suburban wife and mother who sidelines as a black-market fence, with a garage full of stolen goods she explains to her unseen husband as “eBay.”
The one performance out of sync with everybody else is Helena Bonham Carter’s as Rose Weil. A démodé fashion designer teetering toward bankruptcy, she’s roped into the scheme with a promise of financial rescue. By planting gossip items about a design flirtation with a young It girl (Dakota Fanning, one of many star cameos), Debbie and Lou craftily position Rose to do Daphne’s gown for the gala, as a stepping stone to the antique necklace that’s their target. Bonham Carter is playing an eccentric character not unlike her frequent designer of choice, Vivienne Westwood, which should be clever casting, but her bonkers mannerisms feel as strained as her inconsistent Irish accent. Her timing is constantly off.
The production’s access to locations like the Cartier flagship store, the Plaza, Bergdorf Goodman, the Vogue offices at Conde Nast and, most significantly, the Metropolitan Museum itself, gives it luxe credibility. And Sarah Edwards’ eye-popping costumes, together with the work of celebrated designers inspired by the European royalty theme of the Met Costume Institute exhibit, make for some tasty fashion porn. It’s like a Sex and the City movie with thievery. And no sex. Despite some on-the-nose dialogue about how men get noticed and “for once, we wanna be ignored,” Debbie’s crew all end up dressed to slay.
Anyone who has ever wondered what goes on beyond the red-carpeted steps at the Met Gala will find plenty to gawk at, along with appearances by a flock of boldface names — designers, movie stars, models, whatever Kim Kardashian and her sisters qualify as, even the event’s high priestess, Anna Wintour — to help set the scene.
In such an atmosphere of pomp and sophistication, there’s entertainment value in following the female crew as they weave among the glitterati, either disguised as staffers or hiding in plain sight as guests, carrying out the precision-timed plan with quick-thinking resourcefulness, if not much in the way of glitches to fuel any real tension. But there’s also something dispiritingly mechanical about the movie that makes it seem a missed opportunity.
In one sweet, subtle touch, New York stage veterans Marlo Thomas, Dana Ivey, Mary Louise Wilson and Elizabeth Ashley turn up as regional theater actresses hired by the crew to shift stolen gems. That creative casting stroke and its all-ages inclusivity suggest the admirable intentions of a project that aims to carve out screen time for as diverse a spectrum of women as possible. A little less generic slickness and more of that adventurous feminist spirit would have gone a long way.
What Soderbergh, who serves here as producer, brought to his Ocean’s films — even the busy, bloated sequels — was a jazzy energy, an effortless light touch that seems beyond the reach of Ross. Ocean’s 8 tries to inject that verve with an eclectic mix of music to supplement Daniel Pemberton’s score, from Charles Aznavour to Amy Winehouse, James Last to The Notorious B.I.G. But it lacks punch, even if the complicated plotting is sound enough, the gadgetry impressive and the visual trappings sleek. You just start to feel starved for a movie with conflict, suspense and a little heart, rather than a repackaged version of a formula already flogged to death.
Production company: Rahway Road
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Armitage, James Corden
Director: Gary Ross
Screenwriters: Gary Ross, Olivia Milch; story by Ross, based on characters created by George Clayton Johnson, Jack Golden Russell
Producers: Steven Soderbergh, Susan Ekins
Executive producers: Michael Tadross, Diana Alvarez, Jesse Ehrman, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Eigil Bryld
Production designer: Alex DiGerlando
Costume designer: Sarah Edwards
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Editors: Juliette Welfling
Visual effects supervisor: Karen Heston
Casting: Debra Zane, Shayna Markowitz
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes