There’s a new Ocean in town, and she’s bringing some friends.
“Ocean’s 8” opens on Debbie (Sandra Bullock), younger sister to the one and only Danny Ocean, made famous by George Clooney in three films of his own. Debbie has spent nearly six years in prison and she’s looking to do something about that lost time upon her release. She makes the requisite promises to avoid criminals, which essentially means her entire family. So she immediately calls her old friend Lou (Cate Blanchett) and sets things in motion. Debbie has spent her prison sentence crafting a foolproof plan to rob the most glamorous of American events—the Met Gala. Together, Debbie and Lou assemble a team and set out to perform the greatest jewelry heist in history. And, perhaps, to settle an old score along the way.
Gary Ross and Olivia Milch co-wrote a script that wastes almost no time getting right to the point. They give just enough nods to Danny and his crew to keep the audience fully aware that this film exists in the same world. But, just as Debbie wants to set herself apart from her brother, so “Ocean’s 8” wants to set itself apart from its cinematic siblings. The pace does lag occasionally, and the end starts to feel a bit too long. But the new characters, the dialogue, and overall story make this an ideal choice for a summer afternoon at the movies.
The real strength of “Ocean’s 8,” though, rests on its cast. Sandra Bullock’s most popular roles tend to be her comedic ones, despite the fact, her two trips to the Academy Awards came for dramatic work. Here again, she shines, and not just because of her designer wardrobe and flawless eyeliner. Bullock is a perfect lead. Her Debbie is the kind of charismatic smooth talker you’d want to follow in a big heist. And she is matched, every wit, by Cate Blanchett. Their relationship doesn’t quite reach the level of unspoken communication à la Clooney and Pitt’s Danny and Rusty, but it works. They are smart and believable. We don’t need a long history to understand that these two have a lot of stories to tell.
Anne Hathaway is Daphne Kluger, a vapid movie star who unwittingly dons the $150 million Cartier necklace that attracts Ocean’s crew to the Met. Daphne needs little convincing when her newly commissioned designer, Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), shows her the piece. Hathaway reminds us that, like Bullock, she is best when she is funny. And she’s just so good at being funny.
The rest of the players are equally good, although with far less opportunity to show off their skills. Rihanna is Nine Ball, the most gifted of computer hackers. Mindy Kaling is Amita, an old associate of Debbie’s who works in her family’s jewelry store. Awkwafina takes on the role of Constance, pickpocket extraordinaire. And Sarah Paulson ties everything together as Tammy, a mother of two who retired from the criminal life, although she still keeps a foot in the door.
Conspicuously absent from the story is any male character of significance. They are there, in the form of Richard Armitage as Debbie’s old beau Claude Becker, and James Corden in a role that is a mild spoiler. Though present, neither man takes much of the attention or much of the screen time. And this is fully intentional. At one point, while trying to decide if they need another member of the team, someone throws out a name. A male name. To which Debbie answers, “A him gets noticed, a her gets ignored.” It is a line that skewers gender inequality while embracing the one time such a thing is actually a benefit.
In addition to writing, Ross also directs. He exercises as much thought as he did in films like “Pleasantville” and “The Hunger Games.” Here, he gets to add a bit more polish and finesse. Between the script, his direction, and cinematography from Eigil Bryld, this is a film that clearly understands women. How they think and speak, how to highlight them without objectifying. Even little touches like Tammy trying to balance motherhood with work, or Rose emotionally breaking down due to an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. The women rule this tale.
“Ocean’s 8” isn’t without its issues. With each of these films, you can walk into it with a certain expectation that the crooks will get away, even if you can’t quite piece together how. This one shows its cards just a bit too early, defusing the tension before it should. Some of the interesting pieces of the story happen off screen, meaning the audience is forced to trust people who should, by nature, be unreliable narrators. Thankfully, these flaws aren’t enough to derail the story.
A movie like this will always generate the questions of why. Why are we gender-swapping a successful franchise? Why can’t these ladies just go and start their own? “Ocean’s 8” doesn’t solve Hollywood’s gender issues, nor does it try to. This isn’t a movie that seeks to change the world or make a statement. It exists simply because it can. And for that reason, yes it should.