Ocean's Eight finds itself in the heinously awkward position of being a rather middling Ocean's _____ movie, but a very good generic heist movie, thanks mostly to the things it takes from the franchise in terms of style and structure. So most of its strengths are exactly those things that, by calling attention to themselves, are likeliest to make it look less than it is. Or I could make all of that easier to follow by just saying, "yep, it's an Ocean's movie directed by Gary Ross, alright", and sigh, and be grateful that it's still largely pleasurable on its own right, and cross one's fingers that Ocean's Nine gets made, and gets made by another director.

For certainly, even in this hobbled form, Ocean's Eight is a pretty damn satisfying heist movie (and as an aside, I'm not sure if there's another genre where even the most mediocre examples are still so good as the heist movie. This is by no means the most mediocre). Most of that comes down to the eight themselves, a terrifically-cast array headlined by Sandra Bullock as con artist Debbie Ocean, who has just come off of a five-year stint in prison with a highly detailed plan to steal a fabulously expensive diamond necklace from the annual gala at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as an extreme desire to fuck over the ex-lover who framed her. In order to execute this amazing plan, Debbie needs a few good women to join her, starting with her good friend Lou (Cate Blanchett), a great con artist in her own own right who has been reduced to the pettiest grifting to make ends meet. If that sounds awfully like what George Clooney's Danny Ocean and Brad Pitt's Rusty Ryan were up to at the start of the 2001 Ocean's Eleven, that's obviously not anything remotely like an accident: the screenplay by Ross & Olivia Milch isn't a direct copy of Ted Griffin's original ("original"), but it was obviously made with a close eye to the cadences of that film, echoing it without ever directly and exactly replicating it.

The other five recruits, not all of them career criminals, are chosen for their particular skills in a somewhat more specific way than the other Ocean's eleven were. Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter) is a disgraced designer with tremendous debt, Amita (Mindy Kaling) can break down the necklace into anonymous, transportable pieces in a hurry, 9-Ball (Rihanna) is a gifted hacker, Constance (Awkwafina) is a top-notch pickpocket, and Tammy (Sarah Paulson) has the connections they need to fence the jewels. The eighth, unwitting member of the team is superstar Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), the grand marshal of the gala, on whose neck the amazing necklace will be resting.

I won't say those eight are equally flawless: Rihanna might have star power, but in terms of acting talent, she's no better than in her unimpressive film debut, Battleship, five years ago. And it pains me deeply to say it, but Blanchett (easily the best-on-paper member of this cast) is really just not trying; there is nothing in her performance at all equivalent to Pitt's wonderful tic of eating his way through Ocean's Eleven, but even worse, there's no sense at all of an inner life. The one concrete thing we learn about Lou is that she loves motorcycles, but Blanchett doesn't play her as someone who loves motorcycles, if you follow me. Compare that to e.g. the thinly-written role that Paulson breathes life into, letting us see exactly how and why Tammy fits so well into the world of high-stakes event planning that she infiltrates, giving little cranes of the neck and slowed-down steps to let us see the moment she notices important details (that I can recall, Blanchett and Paulson don't exchange any dialogue, robbing us of the Carol reunion we need).

And that's actually the point I was going for: Rihanna is bad and Blanchett is disappointing, but the other six are outstanding, though I'm not going to trouble the emerging conventional wisdom that Hathaway's turn as the airy-headed celebrity with angles and layers hiding inside of her is the standout. Taken together, the titular eight (along with the late-appearing James Corden as a wily but also kind of dumb insurance detective, much better than I've ever seen him in anything) are absolutely reason enough to see the film, to root for it kicking off its own trilogy, and just to enjoy some solid summertime fluff. So there's that.

The thing is, the script lets them down a bit. Not persistently - just a bit. And just really in the middle. Truth be told, throughout the entirety of the "collecting the crew" sequence,  Ocean's Eight is doing pretty damn well for itself, with punchy editing from the great Juliette Welfling that evokes, without copying, the original trilogy's tendency towards micro-frames and zig-zag cross-cutting. It has a snappy rhythm oriented around making every gag explode into the end of a shot or the end of a scene; it moves fast, brushing up against too fast, even, in assembling the crew and explaining their purpose and laying out the heist. It's self-consciously more modern and New York in its frantic approach than the laid-back '60s Vegas cool of Ocean's Eleven and Thirteen, or the jet-set elegance of Twelve, and I think this is all for the best: Ocean's Eight is never best when it feels most like a retread, or when it introduces explicit narrative callbacks (though the running gag that everybody sort of assumes that Danny Ocean, Debbie's brother, has faked his own death is fun), but when it stakes out its own identity.

All of this eventually runs into the heist itself, which somehow manages to be the film's great Achilles heel. It's not much of a heist, is the thing; where the other Ocean's films, not to mention the best films in the genre over its many decades of existence, focus on having a wide range of spectacular coincidences-that-aren't and delightful execution of unexpected tricks, Ocean's Eight just... doesn't. The heist mostly consists of demonstrations of how good the characters are at palming things, over and over again. And where the heist genre thrives on unexpected reveals, and the Ocean's trilogy in particular makes a fetish of the "you thought you saw this, but you actually saw that" twist, everything we think we see in Ocean's Eight turns out to be almost exactly the thing we actually do see. There's really not even any moments where there's tension, any sense that things might go wrong if this split-second timing doesn't work: pretty much from the first scene to the last, Debbie seems so fully in control that it's solely a matter of watching the machinery play out, and it's just not really interesting machinery.

Having a mediocre heist is, undoubtedly, a major shortcoming for a heist film, and having such a sluggish middle in between a fleet and bouncy opening and closing act is a shortcoming for anything. Still, Ocean's Eight is a lot more fun than not. If it suffers, it mostly only suffers in comparison to the other Ocean's films, which are among the very best the genre has to offer. And even that's not an absolute claim: the film's pacing issues aren't really any worse than the oddly-built Ocean's Thirteen, and this film makes substantially more sense than that one did. Lord knows I hope this is closer to the worst of Debbie Ocean and her crew than the best, but even this is engaging enough on its own merits to make the return of the Ocean's universe a cause to celebrate.

Reviews in this series
Ocean's Eleven (Soderbergh, 2001)
Ocean's Twelve (Soderbergh, 2004)
Ocean's Thirteen (Soderbergh, 2007)
Ocean's Eight (Ross, 2018)