There are many elements that go into the perfect heist (film), but it starts with having the right team. When Steven Soderbergh and his A-list cast returned for sequels after 2001’s gleefully entertaining Ocean’s 11, the followups weren’t quite so effortlessly breezy, but they nonetheless possessed a baseline level of enjoyment simply because it was a gas to hang out with those blasé, wisecracking thieves one more time. The new spinoff film Ocean’s 8 introduces us to a new team, and while other key components for a great heist movie are a little shaky, what holds this comedy-thriller together is the radiance of its ensemble. Even if you don’t buy their con, you believe in them.
The movie stars Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, sister of George Clooney’s Danny. Just released from prison on good behavior, she quickly demonstrates what landed her in jail in the first place: Within minutes of her release, she pulls off expert scams at a department store and a fancy hotel. But soon, she’s plotting a grander robbery—one she spent most of her incarceration planning.
Reuniting with her literal partner in crime Lou (Cate Blanchett), Debbie begins assembling a team to pull off a daring heist during the glitzy Met Gala: She’s eyeing a $150 million Cartier necklace that’s been in the company’s vault for decades, which she’s hoping will be unearthed and worn by one of the event’s high-profile guests. The woman they target is Daphne Kluger, an insufferable movie star, and Debbie enlists a struggling fashion designer, Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), to convince the unwitting Daphne to dress her for the Met Gala—and to insist that she must wear the necklace.
As with the previous Ocean’s films, this new installment (directed and co-written by Gary Ross) spends its opening reels gathering this mismatched group of thieves, con artists and hackers, introducing each member in some colorful, clever way. Mindy Kaling’s crackerjack jeweler Amita works tirelessly in her demanding family’s store. Sarah Paulson’s fencer Tammy is now a stay-at-home mom slowly dying from boredom. And once the crew is assembled, then the plan goes into motion, with the expected twists and seemingly impossible obstacles popping up along the way.
Ross has collaborated with Soderbergh in the past—the Oscar-winning director shot second-unit on Ross’ Hunger Games film—and he crafts a decent replica of the Ocean’s franchise’s smooth-as-silk vibe. (He even incorporates some of Soderbergh’s off-kilter establishing shots and hones in on the original trilogy’s ironic-detachment comedic temperament.) Not surprisingly, then, Ocean’s 8 feels a bit like a high-end knockoff in that way that lots of spinoff films can, although the compensation is the familiar delights of watching smart characters do their job very, very well.
Bullock and Clooney are friends in real life—and they starred together in Gravity—but not until Ocean’s 8 had it dawned on me how similar their onscreen demeanors are. It’s not a stretch to imagine Bullock as Clooney’s sister, and as Debbie she conveys the same drier-than-dry wit and bulletproof confidence as Danny. But Debbie’s not as showy as her big brother: You can almost imagine her growing up living in his gregarious shadow, knowing she was just as good a thief as he is but having to keep it to herself.
Daphne may be Ocean’s 8’s fictional Hollywood actress, but it’s Bullock who gives an authentic movie-star performance. There’s a swagger and steeliness to her portrayal that’s quietly thrilling—she’s shown aspects of this no-nonsense persona in everything from Gravity to Our Brand Is Crisis to The Blind Side, but it’s rarely been so perfectly utilized. Debbie is far less self-satisfied than her brother, but you can sense Bullock’s immense joy at playing a character this smart and cunning.
Ross surrounds her with a likable ensemble, even if Blanchett feels a bit reigned-in. (Outside of Meryl Streep, the two-time Oscar-winner is one of our great onscreen chameleons, and so it’s a bit of a letdown that in a franchise that prides itself on disguises, she doesn’t really get to let loose.) Paulson conveys the same unassuming intelligence she always brings to her roles, while Kaling has just the right deadpan delivery—she grounds the knowingly preposterous plot in reality just by shooting everyone around her an over-it-all look.
It’s such fun to watch the team working together that one wants to forgive what’s less dynamic about Ocean’s 8, which is the heist itself. Eventually, we’ll learn that there’s a personal reason why Debbie is going after this necklace—like her brother, she has a hard time separating her emotions from her schemes—but the juicy sense of revenge that’s always been central to the franchise’s appeal is less potent this time around. As a result, Ocean’s 8 feels a little more mechanical because the stakes aren’t as urgent.
Similarly, the actual plan is both somewhat familiar and not particularly complicated. It would be a crime to reveal spoilers, but let’s just say that if you’ve seen previous Ocean’s films—or even Soderbergh’s recent Logan Lucky—you’ve been conditioned to expect some of the hairpin twists that occur in Ocean’s 8. And because of those past films, we’re accustomed to more and more intricate schemes, which hurts this new movie’s relatively straightforward caper. In a sense, the Ocean’s films have all been elaborate magic tricks that dare the audience to spot the sleight of hand and then, presto, blindside us with some killer misdirection. As sleekly constructed as Ocean’s 8 is, it’s not as artful in its execution as previous installments were. The movie coasts on the pleasure of its ensemble’s company, even if it’s not a clean getaway.
Director: Gary Ross
Writers: Gary Ross & Olivia Milch (screenplay); Gary Ross (story); George Clayton Johnson & Jack Golden Russell (characters)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter
Release Date: June 8, 2018
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.