Co-written by Ross and Olivia Milch (Netflix’s Dude), the reboot pivots away from George Clooney’s Danny Ocean and his crew from the Steven Soderbergh trilogy (itself a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack film) to focus on a new set of swindlers led by Danny’s sister, Debbie Ocean (Bullock). Set in the present day, the film quickly reveals – and this is hardly a spoiler since it’s revealed in the trailer – Clooney’s con man is dead, making way for his sister to take the spotlight and carry on the family legacy. And while there are a few cameos from the trilogy in the spinoff, they’re probably not the characters you’re expecting to see.
Ross’ film opens with a callback to the opening scene of Soderbergh’s 2001 movie: an incarcerated Debbie sits in her prison jumpsuit awaiting to be released on parole. Much like her brother, she vows to abstain from a life of crime once she gets out, and of course as soon as she does, she gets right back to conning. After she rips off a department store for quick cash, Debbie pays a visit to her friend and former partner, Lou (Blanchett). Lou’s stayed busy while Debbie was locked up, pulling a few cons of her own, but Debbie has a more enticing offer – a plot to steal a $150 million Cartier diamond necklace from inside the Met Gala, only the most exclusive party in the world. At first Lou resists, but she’s quickly roped back in and the duo begin assembling their team. There’s Paulson’s Tammy, the “fence,” or one who moves the stolen merchandise; Rihanna’s hacker Nine Ball; Kaling’s jewel expert Amita; and Awkwafina’s slick pickpocket Constance.
Then the plan goes into motion – they need to get a high-profile celebrity to wear the necklace inside the Met Gala, unaware of their scheme to lift it, and a well-known fashion designer to gain access to the jewels and dress her. This is where Hathaway’s Daphne Kluger, a fame-obsessed actress Debbie’s crew can easily manipulate, comes in, along with Carter’s Rose Weil, a broke and depressed designer itching for a comeback. From there, they’ve got to find a way to get inside the Met Gala’s dinner, fiddle with the seating arrangements, mess with the security cameras, and so on.
If you’re annoyed that most of this review has been devoted to plot description, then you will understand how I felt watching Ocean’s 8, a movie that spends three-quarters of its runtime explaining the heist. I get that these movies detail the ins and outs of the con, and show their criminals weaseling their way out of false starts and dead ends. But that should at least be interesting to watch, not tiresome.
What Soderbergh managed to do so well with Ocean’s Eleven was make a film less about a suspenseful or believable heist, and more about the easy-going fun of watching its cast of characters plan and pull it off. The original ensemble were a suave and charming bunch; they tossed snappy dialogue back and forth like a game of verbal tennis, and Soderbergh’s stylish direction elevated it all into breezy, comedic entertainment. But Ocean’s 8’s characters are drastically lacking personality, and behind the camera, Ross can’t manage to bring his film the snappy energy it desperately needs.
Other than Debbie, none of the women are developed beyond their most basic utility for the robbery – Awkwafina’s Constance is nothing more than a skateboarder who can snatch a watch; Paulson’s Tammy is just a bored suburban mom who sells stolen appliances; and Rihanna simply clicks a keyboard and lights up fat blunts, which, hey, is certainly enjoyable to watch and well within her brand. But couldn’t Ross and Milch have made her more than a one-note stoner? These characters ring especially hollow in the film’s feel-good closing montage, making you realize that after 110 minutes, you never learned much about them at all.
There are some pleasures throughout. Once we get to the heist, the film finally picks up momentum. The women each finally get their moment to shine, and there are some genuinely thrilling sequences as we see the plan unfold. The cast also gets to don one of the most stylish wardrobes you’ll see onscreen this summer; a montage of all eight ladies descending the Met Gala steps in their elegant gowns is a true highlight.
The cast doesn’t get enough opportunities to break off in smaller pairings for memorable interactions, but Bullock and Blanchett have the best onscreen chemistry. Playing a true Ocean, Bullock brings a flirty swagger to Debbie, and you wouldn’t be alone if you spotted hints of sexual tension in her scenes with Blanchett’s Lou and Paulson’s Tammy. (A missed opportunity to turn Ocean’s 8 into the Carol spinoff we deserve.) And then there’s Hathaway, who’s having the most fun out of everyone. She hams it up to the max as her fussy drama queen Daphne and steals the few laugh-out-loud moments of the movie.
And yet, somehow watching this stellar cast rob the mega cultural event of the year isn’t nearly as fun or as funny as it should be. It’s not great when a movie’s press tour – with silly anecdotes about the cast and playful on-air interviews – is more entertaining than the movie itself. What aggravates me most about Ocean’s 8 is that it suggests a concerning trend for the future of gender-swapped reboots. It’s a prime example of taking a known property and lazily gender-flipping the cast without putting in the work to pair them with a worthy script or direction. Ocean’s 8 tries to pull its biggest con on us – burying a disappointing movie behind the flashy allure of an A-list cast.