Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002) opens on the miraculously sleek and labyrinthine heist of a diamond necklace from an actress’ neck at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a thrilling meta-movie moment that recalls Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and De Palma’s own Mission: Impossible (1996), and is as visually compelling a set piece as any in the director’s storied career. Gary Ross’ Ocean’s 8 filches Femme’s inciting incident (perhaps unknowingly) and builds an entire film around it.
De Palma’s acts of cinematic thievery are well known, with some camps regarding them as uninspired homage and others realizing their purpose in furthering a filmic language. What Ocean’s 8 presents, however, is just lazy filmmaking. The film is so dull in its mechanics that it’s practically the opposite of the Steven Soderbergh trilogy that inspired it – Ocean’s Eleven (2001, itself a remake of the Rat Pack-starring 1960 film), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007). Those films were keenly aware of the cinematic tropes they were dealing out, like a flurry of cards at a blackjack table. They featured clever, twisty narratives and heavily stylized and stylish filmmaking for mass consumption. The films in Soderbergh’s trilogy may vary in quality, but they had casts that sparked with electric energy. Ross’ film boasts one of the greatest lineups of performers in a Hollywood product since the original Eleven, but it utterly wastes them. Ocean’s 8 needn’t have reinvented the wheel, but it’s ultimately just an uninspired cash-in, even more disappointing due to the initial promise of the kind of gender-flipped badassery audiences so desperately desire.
Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) is freshly out on parole after a five-year stint in the clink. She’s also the sister of Danny Ocean – the now-deceased eponymous leader from the original trilogy. She recruits her main wingwoman-in-crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett, looking like the chicest female version of Keith Richards one could imagine), who serves as the Brad Pitt to her George Clooney. Together they form a team of skillful criminals to rob the fictional Cartier Jeanne Toussaint diamond necklace from movie star Daphne Klugler’s (Anne Hathaway) neck during the Met Gala. Their plot requires a motley crew: a jewel fleecer, Amita (Mindy Kaling); the “best hacker on the East Coast,” Nine Ball (Rihanna); a past-her-prime designer, Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter); a young pickpocket, Constance (Awkwafina); and a “reformed” jack-of-all-trades criminal turned suburban housewife, Tammy (Sarah Paulson).
Each point in their scheme is predicated on such loose circumstances that audience members will be rolling their eyes at what Hitchcock called the "implausibles": a pair of 3D scanning glasses is used to make a model of the necklace; Klugler must choose Ocean’s smarmy ex-boyfriend (Richard Armitage) as her Met Gala date to pin the crime on him; and Tammy must get hired at Vogue to secure her spot during the theft. (Yes, there is an Anna Wintour cameo, complete with a theoretically good but terribly executed joke.)
However, the minutiae of the plot mechanics are only part of what makes a fizzy heist film a fun experience. It’s really the dynamics between the players and their respective roles that make these movies sing. Here, the marriage of script (written by Ross and Olivia Milch) and director doesn’t allow for the zippy and playful rapport of the previous Ocean’s crews. Instead, each of the performers seem to slavishly stick to a script filled with criminally slight character sketching and the most clichéd story-beat dialogue. The only aspect that really propels the film is what the actors are able to do with the paltry material they’ve been given. Bullock matches George Clooney’s cool suaveness with her own brand of straight-faced sarcastic charm. Blanchett swings with her trademark reserved cool, but the material gives her a thankless, barely registerable character. The latter could also be said for Kaling, Rihanna, and Awkwafina, three women whose casting unfortunately comes off as a stunt to cater to their respective fans. The first two get occasionally funny one-liners and a cute moment of Tinder swiping, while Rihanna’s Met Gala gown reveal is one of the most giddily fun moments of the film. Bonham Carter milks each of her character’s nerve-jangling run-ins with typical aplomb, but the real winner here is Hathaway, whose bratty-movie-star role knowingly subverts the actor’s goody-two-shoes persona, similar to her sublime performance as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
Ocean’s 8 is particularly good at having its female characters use their learned skills and not their bodies to successful ends. It forgoes gung-ho feminist fist-pumping for more nuanced pro-female messaging. One member of the crew questions why they shouldn’t bring a man into their circle. Ocean responds, “He’s a Him,” observing that witnesses will pay attention to Him, while a Her will go unnoticed. The moment that will undoubtedly elicit cheers from the audience is when each woman, donned with custom a couture gown, walks gracefully down the steps of the Met, sneaking out the pieces of the Cartier jewels in plain sight. It’s the most exciting piece of filmmaking in a work that thinks it can duplicate Soderbergh’s jazzy direction by utilizing iMovie-like transitions between scenes. Let’s hope that a successful box office will allow for a follow-up with a backbone as strong as that of its performers.