The strangest thing about watching Ocean’s 8 is that I could never quite figure out what it was supposed to be. Maybe that’s because the movie never quite figured that out, either. Like 2016’s gender-swapping Ghostbusters, Ocean’s 8 sort of works like a reboot of the Ocean’s franchise, with an all-female cast in place of the men from Steven Soderbergh’s testosterone drenched series of heist movies. Soderbergh is credited as a producer on this film, by the way.
It’s a reboot in that it trades on the Ocean’s brand, but features all new characters pulling off a new caper. At the same time, certain elements work as a straight remake of the first film. The beginning of the picture opens in the exact same way as Ocean’s Eleven. Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean is seated in front of a never-seen parole board, who are trying to determine if her time in prison has rehabilitated her wayward con artist habits. Like Ocean’s Eleven, 8 consists of the main character building her team and putting her plan into action.
Other scenes recreate, beat for beat, moments from the first movie. Cate Blanchett plays Lou, Debbie’s partner in crime; she serves the same role to Debbie as Brad Pitt’s Rusty does to George Clooney’s Danny in Eleven. Just like Rusty and Danny, Debbie and Lou have a conversation about not letting emotional entanglements get in the way of a heist. Lou also scolds Debbie, just like Rusty scolds Danny, reminding her that you should never “run a job in a job.”
So, is this a gender-swapping reboot of the Ocean’s franchise? Is it a straight up remake of Ocean’s Eleven that has new twists, but otherwise tells the same basic story? Unlike the Ghostbusters reboot, Ocean’s 8 takes place in the same universe as the other movies in the series, which is stranger still. Debbie Ocean is Danny Ocean’s sister, and his legendary exploits are referenced throughout the film. We even see a few members of Danny’s original team pop up to help Debbie in her scheme to make off with a 150-million-dollar diamond necklace during the famous Met Gala. Maybe from now on, I’ll just refer to Ocean’s 8 as a gender-swapping franchise reboot remake spinoff?
Its confused place in the series aside, Ocean’s 8 is a hell of a lot of fun. The real strength of the picture is its phenomenal cast. Sandra Bullock, who generates an endless amount of charisma here, is backed up by a group of performers who make the heist at the center of the movie fun, exciting, tense, and a delight to watch. In addition to Blanchett, the other members of the crew are brought to life by Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, and Anne Hathaway as the unwitting eighth member and target of the team.
Particularly strong are Awkwafina as fast-talking pickpocket Constance, and Helena Bonham Carter as Rose Weil, a down-on-her-luck fashion designer. Mindy Kaling and Sarah Paulson are two of my favorite performers, and they’re both good here, even if they aren’t given much to do. I remain ambivalent about Rihanna’s acting abilities. She nails some of her scenes as hacker and tech guru Nine Ball – her nickname derives from her use of the pool ball in her computer mouse – but in other scenes I saw through the façade. She comes across as Rihanna playing at a character, instead of being the character.
That last criticism applies somewhat to the film itself. While Ocean’s 8 undoubtedly has a sleek style, director Gary Ross – who wrote the screenplay with Olivia Milch – apes Soderbergh’s cool, retro 60’s vibe without ever successfully making me believe it. Granted, Soderbergh was himself paying homage to the original Ocean’s 11, a Rat Pack vehicle made in swinging 1960, but that director had a command of the aesthetics in his film to which Ross, for all his efforts, never attains here. He does build satisfying suspense, though. One scene, in which the crew needs a digital scan of the necklace they are trying to steal, is taut and compelling. Ross milks the sequence for all it’s worth.
The new elements that Ross and Milch weaved into their screenplay are welcome additions to the Ocean’s brand. Unlike her brother, Debbie Ocean is a master at the small con, and I took a great amount of pleasure watching her flimflam her way into a hotel suite after being released from prison. Her skills in scamming a department store, despite its strict return policy, also put a smile on my face. Were I half as good as Debbie at these scams or could make them look half as effortless as Bullock does, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this review. I’d be getting a daily massage at a tropical resort on some poor sucker’s dime.
The political commentary you might expect with a gender-swapped version of a popular franchise is here, too, but Ross and Milch never overplay their hand. They make their points subtly, but explicitly enough so as not to be missed. At one point, while Debbie and Lou are putting together a list of their team, Lou recommends a man for one of the spots. Debbie vetoes the suggestion immediately. What’s the matter with him, Lou wants to know. “A him gets noticed,” Debbie says. “For once, we want to be ignored.”
Like many heist movies, Ocean’s 8 asks us to just go with a few plot elements against our better judgement. There is a grand tradition now in movies of “computer hacking” in which the audience is expected not to question the plausibility of what’s happening on screen. I tried, and mostly succeeded, in not getting bogged down by these doubts, mostly because the movie had built up enough good will for me to want to enjoy the ride.
Once the heist begins, Ross sets a feverish (and exhilarating) pace. The emotional high of the robbery is every bit as satisfying as in Ocean’s Eleven. Soderbergh decided to leave his audience on that high, after a brief denouement. Ross and Milch include a lengthy postscript, and the film suffers for it. An insurance fraud investigator – played with a slightly annoying exuberance by James Corden – enters the story determined to get his (wo)man. This last act is mostly a drag on everything that’s come before it.
Despite its problems, Ocean’s 8 is an entertaining continuation of the franchise, and a crackling entry into the Hollywood heist movie genre in general.
Why it got 3 stars:
- Ocean's 8 is an entertaining heist movie with a compelling caper and lots of laughs. A lackluster final act, and direction that only mimics the best of the earlier installments, however, leaves the movie a little flat overall.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There have been calls from critics and hot take writers alike that the best way to give women the platform they so deserve in entertainment is to write original stories and characters for them, instead of having them retread movies featuring men. I agree. Although I liked Ocean's 8 and Ghostbusters, projects that subvert the normal gender power dynamics in Hollywood movies should feature fresh, original ideas.
- I love Elliott Gould so much, particularly as the character he plays in the Ocean's movies.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- There were no bad actors that I noticed at my screening. It was a full house, and the audience seemed really into it.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Solo. Is it possible I'm already summer blockbustered out for the year? Half of those movies didn't even come out in the summer! I'm staring down the barrel of the new Jurassic World movie and Incredibles 2, and I gotta tell ya, I'm not feeling either one at the moment. I'll get to Incredibles 2 at some point. I am interested. Jurassic World, not so much after the first go 'round. I'm on the verge of missing my opportunity to see First Reformed in the theater, the movie that its legendary director, Paul Schrader, categorizes as "slow cinema" in the tradition of Ozu and Bergman. That's most likely where I'll land, but who knows? Check back next week to find out.