Without the magnifying lens of a jeweler’s loupe, “Ocean’s 8” could almost fool the untrained eye that it’s the work of franchise filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. The director of the first three “Ocean’s” films is listed here as a producer, but Gary Ross takes over the duties and it’s a switch that might fool casual fans. Here the “Seabiscuit” and “Hunger Games” helmer ably apes Soderbergh’s stylish shooting, editing and approach to musical cues, but it sometimes feels like the cubic zirconium version of the real thing, as it mimics each facet of its predecessors. But the fourth outing in the series does sparkle regardless, beguiling the audience with enough cinematic delight to keep them from begrudging this new, all-female team its success.
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“Ocean’s 8” begins just as “Ocean’s 11” did: with a parole hearing. But instead of George Clooney‘s Danny Ocean appearing in front of the board, it’s his sister, Sandra Bullock‘s Debbie, giving a performance better than Bullock’s own in “The Blind Side” After claiming to just want the “simple life,” she soon emerges from prison, wearing a slinky LBD and a smoky eye that would make Sarah Huckabee Sanders proud. The conwoman hasn’t missed a beat in her decade behind bars, making a beeline for Bergdorf’s in Manhattan, effortlessly executing a small con that made the former retail employee in me cry a little. But Debbie’s not just down for grifting in high-end stores; she spent her time away plotting a big heist, and she – like her criminal brother – will need a team to pull it off.
They’ll steal a $150 million Cartier necklace from the annual Met Gala, but of course the plan is more complex than that. She first teams with her former partner Lou (Cate Blanchett), and together they recruit jeweler Amita (Mindy Kaling), hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna), fence Tammy (Sarah Paulson), fashion designer Rose (Helena Bonham Carter) and pick pocket Constance (Awkwafina). Their mark is the event’s host, actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), whom they’ll trick into wearing the six-pound diamond necklace at the ball.
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There’s little conflict here beyond the heist itself, and these many of these beats are so familiar that we know them by heart. Like earlier films, there’s an art world ex in the mix (Richard Armitage‘s Claude, instead of Julia Roberts‘s Tess), an 11th-hour hitch and charming celebrity cameos. But the loaded cast and the script from Ross and Olivia Milch keeps the proceedings surprisingly fresh and always fun. Bullock and Blanchett share better chemistry than I’ve had with most of my exes, keeping pace with Clooney and Brad Pitt. Hathaway is getting a lot of buzz for stealing the movie– and she earns it in a role that is clearly a ball to play, full of pouts and ego trips – but that shouldn’t discount literally everyone else here. Awkwafina deserves a special shoutout for perfect timing and delivery in a role that, coupled with her part in the upcoming “Crazy Rich Asians” adaptation, should have her getting more mainstream fame beyond YouTube.
If I’m being honest (and I am because I would make a terrible con artist), “Ocean’s 8” could have earned an A based solely on its costumes. Sarah Edwards clearly defines each character’s style, from Blanchett’s rockstar-esque Burberry suits (swoon) to Paulson’s pretty suburban prep. Setting the heist at the Met Gala could have just been an excuse to showcase gorgeous gowns, but I’m not mad about it. It elevates the solid fashion from the film’s first half, and there were audible gasps when Rihanna’s low-key hacker gets to play dress-up. It’s pure visual pleasure, adding to the film’s suite of joys.
Other than the inevitable twists in the swindle, there’s little complexity here, and that’s ok. “Ocean’s 8” is the self-aware frosé of movies; a summer delight, perfectly airy and refreshing, it’s not here to be your cinematic think piece. “Ocean’s 8” knows exactly what it’s doing and what it’s trying to achieve– showing the audience hell of a good time – and it succeeds marvelously at it, without leaving the audience feeling duped. While this new spin-off doesn’t quite match Soderbergh’s original, this is fizzy, gossamer-weight fun that trumps “Ocean’s 12” and even “Ocean’s 13” at their own con game. [B+]