Movies

Ocean’s 8 Thrives on Its Own Unabashed Girliness

Forget the heist. The gender-flipped spinoff is strongest when it revels in feminine pleasures.

Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Awkwafina in Ocean's 8.
Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Cate Blanchett, and Awkwafina in Ocean’s 8.*
Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

In many of her most iconic roles—in Speed, Miss Congeniality, The Proposal, and Gravity—Sandra Bullock embodies a meeting point of the masculine and the feminine, her gawky, tomboyish appeal forging an alchemical charm with her instincts toward self-effacement or a Scarlett O’Hara–esque resolve. Bullock is thus an intuitive pick to lead Ocean’s 8, which extends the Ocean’s Eleven franchise with a female ensemble. Bullock plays sister to George Clooney’s Danny Ocean: the cocky, lovelorn, always-tuxedo’d Vegas rat who couldn’t help endangering his own heist by seducing his ex-wife in the middle of the caper. Set in Manhattan, Ocean’s 8 is in many ways a mirror image of its predecessor, but it’s most delightful when it follows its own path toward girly transcendence.

Bullock’s casting as Debbie Ocean is the first of several production decisions so clever they feel like no-brainers. In retrospect, it’s a surprise there hasn’t been a (fictional) movie set at the Met Gala before, with all its opulent and voyeuristic possibilities. Crashing a ball means gush-worthy makeovers, but Ocean’s 8 also cleverly subverts the sexy-spy trope by playing with the idea that women can make themselves invisible by choosing not to court male attention. The most revolutionary detail of all—the one that helps director Gary Ross’ film skate through even its most lumbering scenes—is the focus on female pleasure, in luxury and beauty, as well as in their skills and their camaraderie. There’s even a brief segment celebrating a little sister’s scientific know-how that’s embellished with a cheetah-print umbrella, taking pride in a girl’s smarts and style. The characters’ guttural moans and sighs make clear: These are women turned on by who they are and what they can do.

That giddiness and elan go a long way in papering over the film’s faults, which include scant characterization for the crew’s minor players—more important in a version of this story that makes us want to hang with the gang—and a disappointing lack of chemistry between Bullock and Cate Blanchett, who takes over from Brad Pitt as the clear-eyed and perpetually snacking partner. Their fleeting flirtations over lunch are a treat, as are the glamorous, retro-cut suits they strut around in throughout the film. (Blanchett’s Keith Richards–inspired rocker-chick pants alone should garner costume designer Sarah Edwards Oscar consideration.) Even the runaway product placement adds to the film’s aspirational glee. The orgy of name drops and plugs—for Cartier, Brinks, Bergdorf Goodman, Vogue, the Met, and the gala—is the kind of shameless bacchanal in which everyone leaves with a grin. But that darn heist keeps getting in the way, scattering the team when we’d rather watch them getting to know one another better.

Debbie’s unit is a winsome cross-section of New York. A has-been fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter) is recruited to convince Cartier that they should loan a hefty piece of bling to a flighty actress (Anne Hathaway) to wear to the Met Gala. A hacker (real-life Met Ball MVP Rihanna), a diamond expert (Mindy Kaling), a pickpocket (Awkwafina), and a compulsive-thief–turned–stay-at-home-mom (Sarah Paulson) round out the group trying to replace the $150 million necklace around the self-absorbed movie star’s neck with a counterfeit. Paulson is fun as a kleptomaniac jonesing for that next score, but what the film could have used more of is unexpected partnerships like the one between Kaling and Bonham Carter—their rock-steady and antsy energies, respectively, bouncing off each other while they lie their asses off to the necklace’s handlers. A snag that Debbie hadn’t planned on during her prison-bound five years planning the job inevitably appears, but her bigger problem is the part of the heist she shouldn’t risk but can’t resist: framing her ex (Richard Armitage) as payback for putting her away.

The plot, which is stretched out in a final act involving James Corden’s (hilarious) insurance investigator, feels largely dutiful, dissipating the transgressive spark that should propel the picture forward. But there’s something unabashedly, almost brazenly, joyful about the film’s adoration of fashion and fame. (If you want to understand all the jokes, for example, it helps to know that Anna Wintour worships Roger Federer.) Dozens of celebrities appear in the background of the Met Gala, while a few Ocean’s Eleven alumni return for (pointless) cameos. Amid the ebullient excess and competence porn, Hathaway emerges as the one to constantly keep your eye on, as her character’s ditziness continues to unveil new layers. A revelatory performance on par with her turn as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, it’s the film’s strongest argument for the delights, and depth, of girly culture.

*Correction, June 6, 2018: Due to a photo provider error, the photo caption misidentified Sarah Paulson and Cate Blanchett. The caption has been corrected.