Film and TV

Ocean’s 8 Barely Bests a Tricky Problem: How to be Familiar and Surprising

The all-star cast of Ocean's 8 that includes (from left) Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Cate Blanchett and Awkwafina gets upstaged by James Corden, but through no fault of the women.
The all-star cast of Ocean's 8 that includes (from left) Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Cate Blanchett and Awkwafina gets upstaged by James Corden, but through no fault of the women. Barry Wetcher/Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures
As a British friend of mine might say, Ocean’s 8 does what it says on the tin. That’s not nothing. Here’s a clockwork heist that’s both more surprising and a touch more plausible than the previous Ocean's films, carried out by a squad of women whose every scene together suggests a Vanity Fair cover shoot, all set at the high-fashion Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You’ve got stars, gowns and crisp montage sequences of team building and crime-planning, which are, I humbly submit, the two best subjects for Hollywood montage sequences. (Next on the list: training and makeovers.)

You want squad walks? Check. You want a low-key funky soundtrack that forever tries to suggest “Green Onions” without actually playing “Green Onions”? Coming right up. You want one scene to wipe into the next by splitting the image into thirds and then spinning them like the reels of a slot machine? Then this is the movie for you. The pleasures of Ocean’s 8 are just what you think they’ll be: Anne Hathaway, screwball-hilarious as a dim-bulb actor, but unironically radiant as she beams in a cape more grand than any supervillain’s. Or this Vogue-punk Cate Blanchett, a wicked slash in leather pants and a velour jacket who looks something like what Johnny Depp wishes he could pull off.

All that’s engaging enough that it took more than an hour of screen time — and the arrival of James Corden — before I finally understood what was missing. Surely it’s a mistake that the excitable talk-show host swans in late and then steals a movie toplined by ringers like Sandra Bullock, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, Awkwafina, Sarah Paulson and Helena Bonham Carter? That he does is not the fault of the women – though it certainly doesn’t help that mastermind Debbie Ocean (Bullock) exhibits little apparent chemistry with or affection for her right-hand woman, Lou (Blanchett). Instead, it’s just that Corden is free to riff, to let his own comic metabolism dictate the pace of his scenes, while the women are forever subservient to the plotty, precision filmmaking of the franchise. They have to charm us on the fly, sketching characters and burgeoning friendships in the limited breaths they’re given between setting up all the twists and fakeouts the Ocean's movies demand.

Simply put, the clockwork heist that Ocean’s 8 promises (and, by its end, dazzles with) limits the film’s ability to offer what you might actually want from it: the chance to relish this cast. Director Gary Ross, who also conceived of the story and co-wrote the script, prioritizes getting the pieces into place over making us care about the pieces, and as his movie bounces along it’s easy to miss the smooth, unshowy mastery of Steven “Ocean's 11-13” Soderbergh, who usually made the piece-placing stylish fun.

Bullock’s Ocean — the sister of the suave sharpie George Clooney played in his Ocean's movies — sets the heist in motion after years in prison, mostly just because she has a good idea for how to pull it off. A born-and-bred con artist, she dazzles in early scenes with her casual thieving from Bergdorf Goodman and her ingenious stealing of a luxe hotel room. But she’s got little compelling motivation, and her scenes with Lou, her top longtime partner in crime, have no snap to them — and no sense of shared history. Bullock is one of Hollywood’s great comic reactors, but the air is so dead between her and Blanchett that they may as well have shot their lines separately, weeks apart, for the tech team to splice together.

Bullock’s best moments come when she’s onscreen alone — when, like Corden, she can set the pace. At the start, we watch Debbie address her parole board, snowing them with tearful talk about only wanting to live the simple life. Then, when the gala rolls around, Debbie delivers a daft pep talk to her squad via their earpieces, promising them that no matter what happens their story will inspire some 8-year-old girl out there to also take up a life of crime. I admire the boldness of making our hero an unrepentant crook, someone robbing a priceless Cartier necklace mostly for the hell of it. But that choice also contributes to the sense that we’re watching trained pros — the stars and the thieves — hit their marks rather than achieve something more. Only Hathaway, playing vain and stupid and transparently needy, and Bonham Carter, playing nervous and batty, are given the few seconds it takes to register as characters rather than cogs. Both are funny, and Hathaway is transcendent, suggesting deep unhappiness and a welcome cunning beneath her movie star’s vacuousness. It’s a superb comic performance, a reminder of how much more these performers might be able to offer if Hollywood could be bothered to write them parts worth playing.

Ocean’s 8 is, like its heist, a complex whirligig with little time for distractions like fun and human emotion, the very things that spark frivolous entertainments to life. And yet I still recommend it if it looks like the kind of film you might savor. For much of its running time, it seems to offer little more than it’s obliged to, but Ross and his crooks spring welcome surprises in the final scenes, staging them with a warmth and enthusiasm that might have cheered up the rest of the film. Whether the end, a memorable party trick, fully justifies all the piece placing and mark hitting — well, that’s an individual preference. But I still can’t fathom how James Corden gets more laughs than Sandra Bullock in a Sandra Bullock movie.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl