Review: In ‘Ocean’s 8,’ Women Walk Away With a Male Franchise. Sort Of.

Posted June 7, 2018 11:20 a.m. EDT

The party gets started early in “Ocean’s 8,” a frothy female-driven caper. Stuffed with talented, beautiful women playing naughty, this is the latest addition to the cycle that was once about an improbably suave thief, Danny Ocean (George Clooney), and his mostly male band of charming accomplices. Danny is now out of the picture, and Sandra Bullock has stepped in to play his sister, Debbie Ocean, who’s soon overseeing her own con with a knowing smile and the usual suspects, including a partner in crime, a hacker, a pickpocket and a distraction, played with fizz and delectable timing by Anne Hathaway.

Like every sequel, the whole thing is familiar yet different enough. It opens much like “Ocean’s Eleven,” Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 series relaunch, with Debbie finishing a prison stretch and strolling into freedom in heels, camera-ready makeup and the kind of bed-head hair that takes a village of Vidal Sassoons. (Danny swanned out in a tux, equally buffed to a high sheen.) After flaunting her skills — she liberates a suitcase from its owner and demonstrates how to book into a fancy hotel gratis — Debbie winds the story’s clockwork, setting it whirring. She reaches out to her bestie, Lou (Cate Blanchett), an iteration on Brad Pitt’s old “Ocean’s” wingman — and we’re off.

The 2001 “Ocean’s” was a redo of a 1960 heist film with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin set in Vegas, amid the neon and ring-a-ding nonsense. It’s a lead soap bubble of a movie, a nostalgia item that’s memorable only for its Rat Pack stars, who seemed to have made it between martinis and rounds of golf. It’s best enjoyed as a relic of Playboy-era masculinity, with Angie Dickinson and assorted disposable women floating in and out like moths. Soderbergh’s remake, as well as his two follow-ups, greatly improved on the original and added a few substantive female characters. The new movie changes things up with its all-female gang that includes Mindy Kaling and an underused Rihanna.

Plenty of movies have all or nearly all-male casts, including war and combat films, and manly teams have long been called to duty in heist stories and impossible missions à la "Dirty Dozen.” Women sometimes play a role in these stories (if only as a photo tucked in a GI’s helmet), but often remain sidelined or absent. There have also been all-female movies, of course, including the 1939 comedy “The Women,” in which men, though physically absent, remain the subject of obsessive female interest. Men often hover in these female-dominated realms, perhaps because the men (and women) who make these movies can’t imagine taking them out of the picture.

That’s the case in “Ocean’s 8,” which includes an irritating subplot involving a very bad former lover. It’s needless narrative filler; worse, it dilutes the purity of the women’s work, their screen mission as it were. Part of the appeal of the “Ocean’s” movies is that their characters are excellent at their jobs, at slipping watches off wrists, cash out of vaults and all the irresistible, disreputable rest. Like the earlier movies, this one hews to the series doctrine that larceny is America’s favorite pastime. Here, as before, theft is a sexy calling and a near obligation, a service that the beautiful and the cool provide as they steal from the greedier, stupider and far less deserving.

The bad ex angle isn’t worked too hard or too long, but it means that even when women are running a multimillion-dollar con they have to make room for guy troubles, which is a drag. Most of the heists in the “Ocean’s” series involve Vegas casinos; the booty here is a Cartier chandelier of a necklace that’s being taken out of the vault for the Met Gala. Hence the peekaboo shots of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, as well as of boldface names (Serena Williams, Katie Holmes) and swoony close-ups of gowns and gems. A lot of this is fun to watch but would have been more breezily enjoyable if the movie played as lightly (and seriously) with gender as much as it does with genre.

Directed by Gary Ross, who machined the script together with Olivia Milch (and the uncredited help of anyone who’s ever written a caper flick), the movie goes down relatively easy despite these nits. At some point between the first and second hours, though, you may find yourself wishing that Soderbergh — a producer here — had also directed “Ocean’s 8.” Its cast aside, the movie sounds and narratively unwinds like the previous installments, but without the same easy snap or visual allure. As a director, Soderbergh doesn’t throw the camera around, but one of pleasures of his movies is a commitment to beauty as a cinematic end. Here, the actresses carry that burden.

The relaxed Bullock seems awfully pleased to be on call, but she never takes full possession of the role of Debbie Ocean, who’s meant to be satiny smooth. Part of what makes Sandra Bullock Sandra Bullock is seeing her characters sweat — no matter how shrewd or innocent, bungling or smooth — whether she’s doing hard labor or merely dewy from the effort of being alive. She’s an ace Everywoman, the star with that ineluctable something who also feels like best-friend material, the sort you can weep, laugh and close the bar down with, and who makes it easy to wake up the next morning feeling faintly optimistic about the new day.

On backup, Blanchett keeps her performance low-key and cool, wrapping her character in just enough mystery to keep you transfixed. (The costume department does its share with animal prints and biker wear.) The rest of the women — Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson and Awkwafina — have one or two moments, but the movie is more or less the Sandy and Cate show until Hathaway fires up her smile and turns the part of a clichéd Hollywood female narcissist into a disquisition on performative femininity. It’s a role that presumably all the women in “Ocean’s 8” know well but that only Hathaway gets to turn into blissful, slyly political comedy gold.

‘Ocean’s 8’

Rated PG-13 for theft. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.