The central flaw of Ocean’s 8 is that “people looking cool” isn’t much of a story. It’s a poster, maybe even a trailer, but not a story, and not a movie. Ocean’s 8 feels like it started with an idea for the “slow-motion cool guy walk” scene (you know the scene, it’s in every studio heist movie) and then everything else was built around it. The result is shiny but forgettable. It puts its stars in a high-risk, low-reward position, forcing them to try to carry a concept that started to go stale 10 years ago and then leaving them to assume the blame if it doesn’t work out perfectly. Can’t we get these women a fresh concept instead of leaving them to try to reheat George Clooney and Brad Pitt’s (and Frank Sinatra’s) leftovers?
Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean (worst drag name ever?) sister of Danny, who, by the way, is dead now. He was still alive at the end of Ocean’s 13 (2007) but I suppose a lot can happen in 11 years. In any case, the film never explains his death, and we’re never sure if it’s for real or just a way to amp up the stakes for a surprise cameo.
The film opens on Debbie’s release from prison, where being incarcerated apparently hasn’t stopped her from maintaining a perfect smoky eye and a business selling cigarettes. Upon her release she goes immediately to Bergdorf’s™ where she cons them out of thousands in expensive makeups and perfumes before scoring herself a free room at the Plaza Hotel™ through similar means. These mini grifts are some of the most entertaining parts of the movie and are arguably more compelling than the central heist. Probably because the scale is manageable, involving one character and one trick, making them both plausible and easy to relate to, as opposed to the rest of the film, which mostly involves far-fetched cons and is willing to trade believability for the opportunity to introduce a new character.
As the recent cases of Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Delvey illustrate, there are few personalities more fascinating than the unrepentant con, and early in the film it feels like that’s the direction Ocean’s 8 might go. There’s a vicarious thrill to watching Debbie Ocean imitate the trappings of wealth and use her white lady privilege to steal from people and institutions who seem like they might deserve it. Why she feels justified in taking, that might be an interesting story — an amoral, anti-hero Robin Hood for the modern age. Has the grifter become our national id? But the film is far too invested in Debbie Ocean, person who looks cool, to explore or interrogate Debbie Ocean, person who makes a living taking from others.
Debbie is a con because her brother and whole family were cons, we learn, and she plans the big heist partly as a way to get back at her ex-boyfriend who got her thrown in jail. Which is not only kind of boring (of course, the ol’ “genetically predisposed to crime” trope!), in a sense everything she does is defined by men. It’s also telling that the film assumes that we’re here for the wealth porn and brand names™ and don’t much care about why Debbie wants things or who she takes them from. Guys did it, girls can too! Hooray for, uh, …progress?
Debbie is in a romantic relationship, sort of, with Lou (a motorcycle-riding Cate Blanchett with Atomic Blonde hair) a same-sex coupling heavily implied but scarcely shown. Together they recruit a team to steal a $150 million diamond Cartier™ necklace from the Met Ball™ in New York City: jewelry expert Amita (Mindy Kaling), pickpocket/sleight of hand expert Constance (Awkwafina), hacker extraordinaire Nine Ball (Rihanna), soccer mom/crook Tammy (Sarah Paulson) and down-on-her-luck Irish fashion designer Rose (Helena Bonham-Carter).
Just getting into position to steal the necklace involves a series of mini-grifts, like convincing starlet Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to use Rose as her fashion designer; getting Lou hired as the event’s nutritionist; Tammy getting an internship at Vogue; and getting Debbie’s ex-boyfriend Claude Becker (Richard Armitage) on as Daphne’s date — all of which seem less plausible than the heist itself. Not to mention, none of these elements are particularly relatable or visually interesting, which was a big part of the appeal of the Ocean‘s movies in the first place (thought experiment: which Ocean’s 11 scene do you remember best? The contortionist guy, right?).
Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) just doesn’t have Steven Soderbergh’s facility for kinetic scene building and snappy dialogue. Ross is game but never quite sticks the landing. We get lots of jokes that, Debbie Ocean-like, are excellent at imitating the trappings of a joke without actually delivering the goods. Not to mention its rote recitation of the early Oceans patterns, like characters always eating. It nails “breezy,” so it’s not especially hard to watch, but there are more head-scratchers than laughs. Such as its curious recurring tennis motif. Vogue editor Anna Wintour is watching tennis on her laptop during her (thankfully brief) cameo, there’s a red carpet interview with Serena Williams, and Maria Sharapova gets a speaking cameo. Is there some tennis connection here I don’t know about?
The central issue though, is, again, that the characters aren’t allowed to do much that might interfere with them looking cool. By far the most compelling one is Anne Hathaway, delightful as the high maintenance actress Daphne Kluger, probably because she’s allowed some pathos and an arc, and doesn’t have to drag around the burden of knowing more than everyone else.
It’d be great if Debbie Ocean had some master plan in imitating the trappings of glossy fashion mags and scamming rich name droppers, but Ocean’s 8 can’t distinguish an imitation of coolness from coolness itself. Just looking cool is probably enough to make us watch, but not quite enough to make us care.