Ocean’s 8: a welcome addition to the franchise

From the very first scene, Ocean’s 8 makes its heritage clear. Opening with Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) trying to persuade a prison parole board that she’s ready for release; the echoes of George Clooney and 2001’s Ocean’s 11 are clear, and from cameos to callbacks to reworkings of your favourite bits from Clooney’s and Damon’s and Pitt’s bits from the previous trilogy, this is a film that wants you to know where it belongs.

is the late Danny Ocean’s sister, and, freshly sprung from a five-year stretch for manipulating art sales, she hooks up with her erstwhile partner Lou (Cate Blanchette) to put together a monster job, stealing a hundred-and-some-million-dollar necklace from the Met Gala. In entirely familiar fashion, the two put together a crew, a tad smaller than the 11 her brother had assembled, and get busy realising the heist that Debbie has spent the last five years in prison — in solitary, occasionally; it’s quieter and you can think easier there, apparently — rehearsing in her mind.

So the setup, a revenge heist, is remarkably similar to the Ocean’s films of the last decade. What makes it different is an entirely new set of characters, and a new director. And the result is a film that sparkles with much of the same zip as its predecessors — when it hits its stride. And thereby hangs the biggest problem with this film. While Bullock is sharp and engaging as Debbie Ocean, Blanchette can’t quite bring herself to let go and embrace her role, the chemistry between the two leads falling a little flat. Maybe it’s the fault of director Gary Ross; the film, while fun and slick and glossy, rarely has quite the same sharp, snappy tempo of Steven Soderbergh’s direction in the last three films. Making up for this, on the other hand, is Helena Bonham Carter as frockmaker Rose Weil, gratuitously and mostly Irish, who is clearly having enormous fun in her role and who doesn’t get anything like as much time on screen as she deserves. Also embracing her role is Anne Hathaway as Daphne Kluger, the stooge who Debbie and crew plan to use to lift the necklace.

The plotting is intricate, as befits an Ocean. There’s a couple of tricky little twists at the and of the film, one you should see coming and one you quite possibly won’t, but even if you know what’s coming from a long way off, the journey is entirely agreeable and engaging. It doesn’t have quite the same effortless, knowing, arrogant, louche panache of the Clooney films, but maybe that’s part of its charm — on the one hand, comparisons with the last three films are inevitable, but on the other they’re almost irrelevant. Even though a handful of old, familiar characters make their way on-screen, just to remind us where this film came from, it does stand alone as a very entertaining film.

What does give one pause, though, is the way in which the characters are used. Bullock gets to remind us that German is her first language, Bonham Carter puts in a quite delightful performance as an Irishwoman who can’t quite understand what’s going on around her. Hathaway flexes her comedy muscles in a way that she’s not always allowed to. Sarah Paulson’s Tammy has a fleshed-out backstory, one of the few in the film, and even though she’s supposedly the outfit’s fence, she becomes a surprisingly effective quartermaster. Blanchette swaggers and sneers at anything in sight. But Amita (Mindy Kaling), Nine Ball (Rihanna) and Constance (Awkwafina), the rest of the team, are drafted in when they have jobs to do, when a bit of jewellery needs bodging up, a computer needs hacking into, or a pocket needs picking, but otherwise their characters are put back in their boxes. It’s a shame; with the possible exception of Kaling, these are perfectly talented actresses who — we’ll assume it’s because they’re not white; I’m not sure what other reason there is — are kept in the background while the big names get to run the film.

Racial politics notwithstanding, it’s a very entertaining film. It shouldn’t be compared to the previous three films, but it inevitably will be, but it’s a different film, a lot of fun, and, in all likelihood, the prequel to Ocean’s 9 and 10. And why not?


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