Ocean’s 8 is the sort of film that’s all too rare nowadays: an entertainment for adults that succeeds through the sheer force of its star power. Director Gary Ross and screenwriter Olivia Milch – daughter of David – do not depend on the charisma and cool of Steven Soderbergh’s three Ocean’s films. Instead, this is its own thing, a heist where feminist empowerment is more important than being the most clever. It has no aspirations for greatness, and instead trusts that its audience will chuckle and nod along with each gag and twist.
Sandra Bullock stars as Debbie Ocean, the sister of Danny Ocean. George Clooney played Danny, and this film coyly suggest that his skills – stealing while looking great – run in the family. After being paroled, Debbie returns to New York where she ably steals some make-up and a luxury hotel room. But she has aspirations beyond petty theft: along with a crew of seven other women, including Cate Blanchett in the Brad Pitt role, she plans to steal a diamond necklace from The Met Gala. The necklace will be worn by Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), who is hosting the event. You know the rest: there is talk about how the heist is impossible, goofy scenes of duplicity, and of course Debbie’s ulterior motive.
Like Ocean’s 12, the best of Soderbergh’s trilogy, Ocean’s 8 realizes the particulars of the heist are ancillary. Instead, the pleasure is how the actors riff on their persona, or upend them altogether. Consider Helena Bonham Carter, a member of the titular eight, who designs the dress Kluger wears to the party. She is aloof to the point of being daffy, and a terrible liar, and yet she must trick Kluger into one thing after another. The tension of whether Carter’s character can keep it together is a delight because of it’s a riff on her performances in Harry Potter and countless Tim Burton films. On the other hand, Bullock is completely cool while making it look effortless. Her measured indifference is all an act – we learn the depth of her anger before the film is over – so Bullock’s smoldering performance is all the more fun.
But for all its pleasure, including Sarah Paulson as a soccer mom and Rihanna as a hacker, Anne Hathaway completely steals the show. Her performance is pure screwball: she is sexy, ditzy, cunning, and funny all at once. You could see Bette Davis or Rosalind Russell playing Kluger, which suggests that perhaps Hathaway was born in the wrong era. It is not an easy role: Ross/Milch do not make Kluger into a villain like Andy Garcia’s Terry Benedict, and yet she must be worthy of the thieves’ scorn. Hathaway pulls it off so ably that the film sort of sags when she is not on the screen. Performances like this rarely get awards, but perhaps they should.
Gary Ross is not a stylist like Soderbergh. Ross has made memorable films – Pleasantville is a career highlight – yet his instincts are conventional. Ocean’s 8 has some of the snappy cross-cutting of Ocean’s 11 and its sequels, but what’s more important is how Ross preserves the visual storytelling. The Gala requires Ross to juggle several small dramas at once, with each of the thieves achieving important tasks, while keeping it all coherent. He pulls it off, while also giving ample time for the audience to gawk at the gowns like we’re Tom and Lorenzo.
If Ocean’s 8 is lacking anything, it’s the chemistry among its thieves. Bullock/Blanchett are not an effortless pair like Clooney/Pitt. In fact, Blanchett’s character does not have much of a personality beyond her punk chic outfits, and other characters like Awkwafina’s Constance barely register as competent pickpockets. This is not a group that would naturally reunite like Ocean’s 11 – the gang, not the movie – even though an inevitable sequel will have them do it.
What these eight women share, and what makes the movie so damn fun, is their shared sense of frustration. All of them feel wronged or set aside, in ways that are unique to women. Bullock resents her former lover, while Mindy Kaling’s character Amita deals with a domineering mother. Paulson’s character is bound by obligations to her children. By going through with the heist, including an obligatory scene where they walk the red carpet, the team breaks from their obligations and the justified resentment that bind them. Getting away with it has never felt this right.