Sandra Bullock and Rihanna lead a low-stakes reboot in 'Ocean's 8'
Some movies are more about parallel play than actual playground interaction, and despite a screenful of terrifically skillful talents, "Ocean's 8" never quite gets its ensemble act together. It's smooth, and far from inept. But it isn't much fun. That's all you want from a certain kind of heist picture, isn't it? Fun?
Sandra Bullock takes the linchpin role of Debbie Ocean, sister of Danny, played by George Clooney in the three "Ocean's" movies of widely varying quality directed by Steven Soderbergh. Bullock seems dead-set on not just deadpanning her way through this reboot, but going beyond deadpan to uncharted regions of sphinxlike minimalism. That style and tone often works with caper films, where the characters' poker-face nerve is typically outclassed only by the clothes.
This surely was the case when Clooney, Brad Pitt and company swanned through Soderbergh's larks. The first of that trilogy, released in late 2001, clicked with post-9/11 audiences happy to slip into a comfortable retro groove. Soderbergh updated the 1960 "Ocean's 11" (pretty arthritic, but with great opening- and closing-credit sequences) starring the emblems of old Vegas: Sinatra, Dino, Sammy, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, plus all that glorious neon and electric signage. Those were the days. When men were men and women, pure decoration, barely spoke.
In "Ocean's 8," at least, they speak. Released from prison after being set up by her equally devious art-dealer lover (Richard Armitage), Debbie reunites with her partner in crime, Lou (Cate Blanchett), for a score somewhat larger than their bingo-money scams of old. The quarry: a Cartier diamond necklace worth $150 million, or roughly twice the production budget of "Ocean's 8."
The jewels, on loan but closely guarded, dominate a swank wardrobe designed by has-been clothier (Helena Bonham Carter), who's in on the scheme, for an imperious movie star (Anne Hathaway) attending the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art fundraising gala in New York City. A jeweler (Mindy Kaling), a pickpocket (Awkwafina), a fence of stolen goods (Sarah Paulson) and the inevitable, all-important computer hacker (Rihanna) complete the circle. Their tools include surveillance gadgets (eyeglasses equipped with video) and impersonations (Bullock, too briefly, pretends to be a huffy German guest of the Met Gala). James Corden pops in as an insurance investigator, on the hunt for whoever stole the necklace and replaced it with a knockoff version.
That's an apt description for the movie itself. With co-writer and director Gary Ross' script, written with Olivia Milch, you keep waiting for the banter and the interplay to take off, and take you with it. Bullock, to Rihanna: "What's your name?"
"Nine Ball," she says.
"What's your real name?"
"Eight Ball," comes the reply, which sounds like a joke and times like a joke but isn't really much of a joke.
Refreshingly, "Ocean's 8" doesn't resort to the customary pointless brutality found in so much contemporary escapism. (If the movie doesn't succeed commercially, studio executives are virtually guaranteed to make the mistake of blaming it on the lack of violence.) Now and then there are glimmers of panache, as when Kaling perfectly judges a one-word rejoinder or when Rihanna enters the gala looking like $150 million herself.
The movie feels tame, and virtually sexless, which could be said of the Soderbergh "Ocean's" movies, I suppose, one of which I really liked (the first one), one of which I hated (the third one), and the middle one, eh. I wish "Ocean's 8" were livelier; I like movies that set an elegant, amusing trap with some flair. Also, I really don't want to hear one word from a single idiot male moviegoer who KNEW a female-driven variation on "Ocean's 11" was DESTINED to UTTER FAILURE.
Then again: "Ocean's 8" isn't likely to provoke the same hostile pushback that met the recent and not-very-good "Ghostbusters" reboot. The "Ocean's" movies are aiming at an older, less fanboy-obsessive audience. What Ross' film reminds us, more than anything, is that movies operate on baseball percentages at best. And everything has a chance to go a little wrong, long before the cast arrives on set, ready to play.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language, drug use, and some suggestive content)
Running time: 1:50