The elevator pitch for Gary Ross’ energetic “Ocean’s 8” is an odd one: It suggests that someone watched Steven Soderbergh’s snappy trilogy of heist films and concluded little more than, “Hey, do you think this cool lead character has a sister who’s also into crime?” Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” films are playful, self-reflexive rides, but hardly the kind of entertainment that demands a spinoff. Of course, that’s never stopped the entertainment industry from mining for gold from an established mine, and the results of this minor project bear that out.
“Ocean’s 8,” a woman-centric take on Soderbergh’s love for making crime look cool, doesn’t have much in the way of original plotting, instead rooting its purpose in a premise that should no longer be considered as revolutionary as it is — building an entire film around unique female characters.
Yes, Danny Ocean (George Clooney, who is not in this movie, though he is often referenced with fondness) has a sister who is also into crime and exciting enough to spark her own feature film. Her name is Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), and what she lacks in her own interests, she more than makes up for with some serious style. First introduced during an overwrought parole hearing during which we only see Debbie pleading her case — and, damn, is she pleading it — it’s obvious from the jump that Debbie has plenty more schemes up her sleeve. Released from prison after a five-year stint for something (we find out what soon enough), Debbie is tossed back out into polite society wearing the only duds she owns: an evening gown. This is a woman with stories to tell.
Debbie celebrates her reentry into the world the best way she knows how, by embarking on a shopping spree-turned-stealing scheme that’s more lo-fi than anything her brother ever cooked up. It hinges on her ability to bluff and babble her way out of a sticky situation, and provides a whiz-bang introduction to her skills that ranks as one of the film’s best bits. Consider it some skill-sharpening, because Debbie hasn’t spent the last five years in jail twiddling her thumbs, she’s been planning something, a big something, and now she needs some friends to help her with it. Plus, she only wants women to help her, because as she notes early on, it’s the “hims” that get seen, while “a ‘her’ gets ignored.”
Most films that require the assembly of an all-star team tend to relish the process, and “Ocean’s 8” is no different, as it neatly parcels out introductions to Debbie’s fellow criminals while allowing each actress and character to shine. These are people you want to spend time with, and all the better if that time is spent embarking on a gutsy jewel heist set during one of the world’s premiere fashion events (the costumes, from top to bottom, are divine). The depth and breadth of these characters is one of the film’s greatest assets, from Cate Blanchett as Debbie’s best friend Lou, a booze-shorting badass who appears to take her style cues from early Keith Richards, to Anne Hathaway as the gloriously vapid Daphne, along with star turns from Rihanna as a whipsmart hacker and Awkwafina as a fast-handed grifter. But this volume of bubbly personalities also holds back the film as a whole.
We want to spend time with these characters, and when the film switches into heist mode, “Ocean’s 8” loses sight of the women who drive it, opting to focus on a heist that’s fun, but not nearly as fun as watching the characters prepare for it. Take us back to the planning stages.
Like her brother, Debbie favors stealing big ticket items (for “Ocean’s 8,” it’s a massive diamond necklace) from highly guarded constraints (this time, it’s the Met Ball, where the necklace will in attendance with two of its very own security guards) that have something outlandish enough to draw the attention of a wily Ocean. Debbie and her ladies don’t have the kind of seed money that got Danny and his boys set up with their cinematic crimes, and “Ocean’s 8” is tasked with imagining a tough heist that isn’t pulled off with the aid of neat gadgets or flashy tricks. The biggest tool Debbie has is a 3D printer, and even that’s not fool-proof. At one point, Lou hides out in a food truck, in a blend of New York ingenuity and on-the-cheap criminal endeavor that the boys never had to put up with.
Despite a cool backdrop and a daring idea, the heist itself feels like a third-tier Soderbergh joint, one that’s temporarily bolstered by the same jazzy music and quick cuts that marked the filmmaker’s trilogy, though carried out with considerably less energy. Perhaps that’s because the stakes are never quite high enough, and each character is capable enough to get out of any scrape (and there are a few, including one that does seem insurmountable in the moment; it’s not, of course). This thing has been planned to the hilt, and while that’s always been a mark of an Ocean heist, this one doesn’t pop, even when Ross and co-writer Olivia Milch add a few twists to dial up the drama. It’s too late by then, and the biggest one feels oddly last-minute, an unnecessary addition that’s more confusing than compelling.
And while the franchise has always enjoyed a degree of self-awareness — remember when Julia Roberts played a character who looked like Julia roberts? — the film’s adoration for over-the-top cameos have the uneasy effect of making the film feel less real. Sure, Anna Wintour is going to pop up at her signature event, but by the time the camera cuts to yet another Kardashian, it feels like a jarring, discordant blend of reality and fiction.
It sure would be fun to live in a world where Debbie and Lou are able to craft heists out of ingenuity and rage against the system, but we know that’s not a world that actually exists. Apparently that only happens when the show belongs to the men.
“Ocean’s 8” opens on Friday, June 8.