Gary Ross brings the fun, but lacks the stylistic genius of Steven Soderbergh
Sarah Paulson, Sandra Bullock, and Rihanna (l-r) working out the angles of the caper.
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Near the start of “Ocean’s 8,” we’re led to believe that Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is dead and his sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock) has just gotten sprung from the clink—on parole after pleading for a chance to live an honest life—but it’s obvious that you can’t trust a single word or account told by or about anyone in this family. They put the “artist” in the con game, and director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville”/“The Hunger Games”) wants us to watch little sis make her move to claim the throne left vacant
by big bro.
Of course, the Oceans never operate alone, so we’re introduced to Debbie’s right hand, Lou (Cate Blanchett) who is toiling away on her underground scam, watering down vodka for players in her secret gambling room, while waiting patiently for Debbie to activate her. Remember how Rusty (Brad Pitt) passed his time schooling an uncredited Topher Grace how to play high-stakes poker? Lou is Rusty’s clone, right down to the slick fashion sense.
Debbie wants to pull off the heist she’s being contemplating during her time behind bars—pilfering a vintage six-pound diamond necklace during New York City’s annual Met Gala. With Lou’s assistance, she gathers the perfect team, including a hacker extraordinaire (Rihanna), a nimble pickpocket (Awkwafina), a fence turned homemaker (Sarah Paulson), a jewel specialist (Mindy Kaling), and a disgraced fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter).
I’ve already mentioned (and all evidence points to the notion) that Debbie is an Ocean through and through, which means she’s got a side angle working too. It turns out she’s nursing a grudge against Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), her former boyfriend and partner in an art scheme that resulted in her getting pinched—mainly because Claude ratted her out to save himself—and she sees a chance to get revenge. All’s fair in love and cons, right?
It’s funny watching the elements come together in this complicated scam. On one hand, the set-up isn’t quite as complex as it seems, but there’s an easy sense of fun in every exchange. We find ourselves investing in each of these characters in ways that, to be honest, the script isn’t. We know, for instance, that Paulson’s fence is a mother with a garage full of stolen goods that she claims to have ordered from E-Bay, but it would be great if we had the chance to observe how she deals with the cons involved in maintaining her sanity in her suburban life. In the same vein, we get that Kaling’s jeweler wants to break free from her family, in particular her mother’s nagging about finding a husband, but nothing more is truly made of the situation.
On the flip side, Debbie, with the team on the verge of kicking off their impossible dream of a con, dedicates the job to the young girls out there looking to enter a life of crime. She wants to be a role model. That’s what the movie aims for as well. Girls, know that nothing in life is beyond your grasp; you just have to figure out how to extend your sticky reach like these fine role models.
Part of my problem with the proceedings though is the very idea that “Ocean’s 8” lacks the necessary empowerment message it’s trying to preach. Because the movie so slavishly wants to offer a gender-swap on the original premise of Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 11,” the results feel like a note-for-note replay rather than something that could stand on its own. I love that we’re presented with a team of female crooks ready to make everyone feel like giant suckers in the twistedly rigged game of life, but why must they copy what the boys already did?
Ross, sharing screenwriting duties with Olivia Milch (screenwriter and director of the upcoming feature “Dude”) could have remixed the crime beats, giving us some noirish pulp featuring the more ruthless side of Debbie and her crew. Take if you will a picture of Debbie, if she had been allowed to reflect the harsher side of a woman scorned, in her pursuit of revenge against Claude. Forget crying doves, such a move would have forced us to respect Debbie as a boss predatory bird in her own right, instead of merely smiling at how cute she and the crew are for being birds of a feather flying free for the first time from the old “Ocean’s” nest.
Rating: PG-13; Grade: B