This is supposedly an age when movie stars don’t matter anymore, when actors whose movies gross hundreds of millions when they suit up as superheroes diminish into obscurity when they try to doff the costume, when only the ageless Tom Cruise and often not even he can “open” a movie as in days of yore.
Which makes the Ocean’s Eleven franchise, if one might call it a franchise now — the three Steven Soderbergh heist movies, and now the new all-female variation Ocean’s 8 — a fascinating phenomenon, since they’re movies that are sold on star power and increasingly nothing but star power. Since the first one the heists have become increasingly ephemeral, the storylines at once self-indulgent and tossed off, and the main thing the movies have advertised is the very old-fashioned chance to spend just under two hours hanging out, in celluloid-enabled intimacy, with your favorite movie star. Or rather, stars, since the whole point is that they’re all hanging out together, handfuls of them, just as you might like to imagine that they do — George and Brad and Matt and Julia, just chilling in some fancy setting before they pull off their latest score.
This makes the saga’s transition to our age of female empowerment much more seamless than it was for the unfortunate all-lady version of Ghostbusters. The Ocean’s movies are neither good enough nor geeky enough to attract the kind of obsessive male-nerd devotion that spilled over into misogynistic online uproar when the Ghostbusting business was turned over to Kristen Wiig and Co. And if the point of your franchise is to showcase movie stars, wouldn’t you rather be showcasing the ladies anyway — especially nowadays when they’re rather less interchangeable than the superhero studs?
So in Ocean’s 8 we get Bullock and Blanchett instead of Clooney and Pitt, Hathaway instead of Damon, plus Rihanna and Mindy Kaling and Sarah Paulson and Helena Bonham Carter and Awkwafina (a rising Asian rapper, if you don’t follow that sort of thing). Instead of Vegas or Italy we get the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and indeed the Met Gala, complete with cameos from Anna Wintour, Kim Kardashian, and other well-known ladyfolk. And instead of casino millions our lady heisters are after jewels, specifically a Cartier-owned necklace that hasn’t seen the light of day for decades but that might be worn to the Gala if the right movie star wanted it.
The idea of a movie star as a convenient mark is part of the complex plan that Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the famous and apparently now-deceased Danny from the first three films, has been hatching during five long years in the slammer. Once out, she assembles her team — the aide-de-camp (Cate Blanchett); the fence–turned–suburban mom (Paulson); the pickpocket (Awkwafina); the diamond cutter (Kaling); the hacker (Rihanna). She adds a dress designer (Bonham Carter) whose debts have made her desperate enough to design an outfit for the Gala that’s built around the $150 million necklace and then help Debbie’s team steal it — right off the neck of the spoiled star Daphne Kluger (Hathaway, having fun playing a self-parody), for whom she’s making the ensemble.
All of this is promising; sadly the execution is even emptier, even more “watch the stars hang out and pay us for the opportunity,” than the prior Ocean’s movies. Soderbergh’s flicks at least went through the motions of having love interests and antagonists; here, under Gary Ross’s pedestrian direction, the two categories are collapsed into a single hate interest, an art dealer played by Richard Armitage whose betrayal of Debbie, his then-lover, was what packed her off to jail. Now she wants revenge, but that part of her plot makes him less a villain than a patsy, whose essential insignificance is telegraphed by the fact that he isn’t played by a movie star. (Yes, Armitage played an important dwarf in the Hobbit movies; that doesn’t count as stardom.)
The only other potential antagonist in sight is the insurance investigator, played by the chubby English comedian James Corden, who shows up in the last act as the ladies’ final obstacle. Suffice it to say that his interactions with Bullock do not exactly approach the heat generated by Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan in the last great Met-robbing caper, The Thomas Crown Affair.
So there’s no love or sex here and no real bad guy — and then the plot itself, the heist that’s supposed to prove Debbie’s jail-perfected brilliance, just seems to depend on a series of extremely unlikely coincidences and lucky breaks to work on paper, let alone in life. To take just one example out of many: If your genius, airtight, honed-in-prison plan can’t even get off the ground without one very specific A-list movie star being convinced to work with one very specific fashion designer at a time when that fashion designer isn’t exactly at the peak of her career — well, then I would submit that what you have isn’t a plan at all, but just a fantasy.
Of course watching a bunch of lovely movie stars sashay their way through a pure fantasy isn’t the worst way to spend an evening at the movies, and I’m not surprised that Ocean’s 8 is a big hit despite the fact that half the characters are wasted, the script is two punch-ups shy of being genuinely funny, and the third-act twist makes the “genius” plan even more ridiculous. Alas, not content to count their box office, some of the stars have begun complaining about how white-male critics didn’t appreciate their film enough. No doubt there are movies where that complaint might have some justice, but not this one. Take the money and run, ladies.