Confession: I had to look up the plot synopsis to Ocean’s 13 to figure out if I’d skipped the movie or if its plot was so amorphous that I’d simply rolled it into the happenings of Ocean’s 11 and 12. Forgive the franchise fatigue, but it’s particularly difficult to distinguish when the framework and cast of these movies doesn’t change much from one film to the next. It turns out I haven’t seen Ocean’s 13, but the ingredients look the same as the rest: George Clooney + Hollywood pals + Casino heist.
So it’s probably no surprise that when I read about the concept behind Ocean’s 8, with Sandra Bullock starring as Debbie Ocean, Danny Ocean’s sister, I had mixed feelings. The women-led cast sounded like a big upgrade over, say, an Ocean’s 14, but I was still picturing basically the same film I’ve already seen a few times with a casting twist. While that is mostly the case here, I found that the script made some smart choices in changing basic plot elements to avoid carbon copying its predecessors.
Ocean’s 8 is, of course, a heist movie. After Debbie Ocean sits in prison for five years when she takes the fall for a job gone wrong, she’s out on parole and ready for her next target. Ocean’s been running the scenarios in her head non-stop for all five years of her sentence to work out the perfect heist, which first involves a “rounding up the group” montage as Ocean pulls together her crew: old partner Lou (Cate Blanchett), fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), jeweler Amite (Mindy Kaling), hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna), “the fence” Tammy (Sarah Paulson), pickpocket Constance (Awkwafina), and movie star Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway).
The heist itself avoids the usual trappings of the genre’s settings, and instead of “robbing ten banks,” as Ocean puts it, or going the casino route, she decides to go for jewels by crafting an intricate plot to rob Cartier of an expensive diamond necklace valued at more than $150 million. The basic gist involves getting a fashion designer in on the caper to dress a high-profile celebrity so that Cartier will put the necklace on loan for the Met Gala, which our cast attends in various forms of disguise (caterers, guests, staff). It’s a relatively simple change, but one that does wonders for the film. It’s also something that makes Ocean’s 8 feel very of its time. The on-screen recreation of the star-studded Gala and it’s avant-garde styling choices, the celebrity sightings, and the audible in-theater gasps at Rihanna’s outfits felt like they were ripped right out of my Twitter feed.
As you might expect with a film crammed full of stars, not everyone’s character gets a chance to breathe, but overall, I thought the chemistry between the leads was fantastic. Hathaway and Rihanna arguably steal the show, in Hathaway’s case by playing to the sort of uptight and stuffy mold she’s unfairly been cast in the real world, and the other because, well, she’s Rihanna. I’d argue the only part of the core cast that was a miss for me was Bonham Carter’s fashion designer portrayal, which felt slightly out of place and forced against the backdrop of her co-stars’ more fluid performances.
The script is also solid – the film spends most of its time concerned with socially engineering the situation and how Ocean will place each of her chess pieces on the board. There’s some tech and gadgets involved, but nothing particularly ridiculous or over the top: this is primarily a game of strategy and manipulation. There’s also a refreshing absence of love interests or romantic storyline.
There is, however, an elephant in the room for most of Ocean’s 8: Danny Ocean. We’re told in the previews for this film and early in the movie that Danny Ocean’s dead, though Debbie casts some doubt on how genuinely she believes that her brother has met his end. And for the better, I think, the big names from the previous Ocean’s films don’t show up in Ocean’s 8 (we get a few minor cameos, but that’s about it). But Debbie’s connection to Danny is raised ad nauseum, even going so far as to having her stare at his framed photo a few times to remind us that, yes, this takes place in the same universe.
The direction on this was fine – a mostly serviceable job at using a charismatic cast. For all the effort to put women both in front and behind the camera in Hollywood lately, I was surprised Ocean’s 8 went with director Gary Ross. If ever there were a film that should have a woman at the helm, it’s this one, and it was hard not to think about it during one specific scene that goes out of its way to show a woman directing a movie of her own.
So, generally, not a lot of surprises with Ocean’s 8. It’s a far better sequel than the franchise could have gotten out of its original cast, and the combination of a change of setting and a change of characters is exactly what a film like this needed. The casting is stellar, the writing is clever, and any movie that can remind me of my Twitter feed without making me feel irate or anxious is doing a pretty good job of putting itself in the moment.