Despite its awkward status as a superfluous sequel that no one was asking for (in a summer full of such films), it turns out that Ocean’s 8 is… actually kind of a perfect movie.
Co-written and directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, The Hunger Games), the film isn’t hectic or zany. It doesn’t revolve around a harebrained scheme that’s forever in danger of falling apart. And the characters aren’t a wacky band of rogues who put aside their ideological differences to barely pull off “one last job.”
Instead, Ocean’s 8 is competence porn.
It’s the feel-good story of eight women who are exceptionally good at what they do, portrayed by eight of our most iconic actresses (or seven plus Awkwafina, the “new girl” whose role here and in Crazy Rich Asians has her poised to break out), in a well-constructed film that delivers exactly what you need from a heist movie:
Quick wit? Check.
Stylish luxury? Check.
Preposterous plot? Check.
Emotionally satisfying payoff? Check.
And while it doesn’t have the high-energy crackle of a manic Guy Ritchie film, I’d argue that the Ocean’s franchise has never been about traditional heist movie tropes where lovable underdogs barely succeed against stacked odds. Instead, they’re about something else entirely:
The big lure of the Ocean’s movies is the pleasure of seeing confident outsiders successfully undermine and exploit an elitist system that’s rigged against them [and us].
Here are 8 reasons why this all-female update to Steven Soderbergh’s low-key Ocean’s 11 trilogy works so well.
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD for a movie about thieves thieving.
It’s a Worthy Successor
As reboots go, Ocean’s 8 aces the trickiest challenge:
It successfully pays homage to its source material without pandering.
Yes, it follows the same arc as 2001’s Ocean’s 11 (itself a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack peudo-classic). And yes, it features cameos and callbacks to characters from the original trilogy.
But instead of genuflecting at the altar of what came before (like, say, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which includes so many winks at Spielberg’s original that it’s impossible not to compare them), Ocean’s 8 nods to the Danny Ocean years while existing entirely in its own self-sufficient world.
Instead of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean, we now follow his little sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock) — whom we learn is just the latest wayward grifter in a whole family full of them. By wisely positioning this as a family extension of the first trilogy, Ocean’s 8 becomes free to go its own way while still integrating touches from the past as an organic homage instead of a forced obligation.
(And truth be told, Ocean’s 8 would work 100% perfectly on its own without needing a tie-in to the original trilogy whatsoever. But Hollywood hates to let its fallow intellectual property go unused, so here we are.)
Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Betrayed
At the risk of failing the Bechdel Test (don’t worry, it passes), Ocean’s 8 hinges its plot on that irresistible motivation for wronged women the world over: revenge on a man who benefited at their expense.
In this case, Debbie’s backstory involves a con gone wrong. When she falls prey to the prisoner’s dilemma, she ends up with five years in a penitentiary to think about what she’s done.
And what she concludes is that the only thing she did wrong was trust the wrong guy.
So now it’s time for some payback… and exponential profit.
I’ll admit that I would have enjoyed Ocean’s 8 even more if it hadn’t felt obliged to serve as a meta-commentary on gender disparity and the general dickishness of dudes. In fact, I was so caught up in watching their heist plan come together that the introduction of the secondary motivation actually struck me as distracting. (The film reflexively lampshades this when Lou (Cate Blanchett) chides Debbie for trying to do “a job within a job.”)
That said, I don’t think a film starring eight women could believably avoid that as a plot point either. And once Debbie makes her case, it’s hard for Lou — or us — to argue.
Then we’re just left to see whether or not both facets of Debbie’s plan will work.
Which is apt, because…
Ocean’s 8 Is a Joyous Celebration of Work
Much like the original trilogy, in which Danny and his companions were each best-in-class experts at something unseemly, Ocean’s 8 revels in showcasing the high-quality work of people who do their jobs well.
Every member of Debbie’s crew is a world-class something-or-other — swindler Lou (Blanchett), fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), stay-at-home mom (and illicit fence) Tammy (Sarah Paulson), hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna), pickpocket Constance (Awkwafina), forger Amita (Mindy Kaling), and movie star Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) — but here’s the kicker:
The people they’re up against are almost equally exceptional.
Sure, the security teams, insurance investigators, and executives at the Met and Cartier get bamboozled and hoodwinked by Debbie’s con. But to their credit, they’re never shown as being inept. They just suffer an occasional lapse of judgment or hubris, the same as any of us. This is important, because it means Debbie and her crew must consistently be at the top of their game in order to win.
The Ocean’s franchise isn’t about outwitting idiots; it’s about executing a plan flawlessly.
In this era of growth-hacking, political incompetence, proud ineffectualism, and money for nothing, it’s honestly refreshing to see a film where the protagonists win specifically because they’re faultlessly efficient organizers, executors, and highly-skilled specialists.
Mad Men and Breaking Bad fetishized high-quality work as its own reward.
Ocean’s 8 makes that efficiency fetish fashionable.
The Death of Snark
Gorgeous gowns and killer bangs aside, Ocean’s 8‘s most striking aesthetic may be this:
The women are never mean to each other.
The movie has plenty of humor, but almost none of it comes at the expense or degradation of anyone else. Even when two characters may not yet like or trust each other, they don’t start trading sarcastic quips in a show of glib one-upsmanship (a la Iron Man and Doctor Strange); they simply ask questions, observe each other, and eventually learn to respect one another as equals.
Friends, you would be stunned how much you won’t miss wall-to-wall wisecracks in a heist film.
This pleasantry even extends to the film’s larger world.
Debbie’s crew is almost uniformly polite, even to the people they’re deceiving, cheating, and robbing. This is notable, because it goes hand-in-hand with the film’s palpable affection for work: Debbie and the gang realize that their marks are just doing their jobs, too. There’s no need to humiliate them when profiting off their errors is reward enough.
And speaking of all this reverence for work…
Let’s get meta for a second.
It’s one thing for a group of fictional characters to work well onscreen together, or to juggle the dueling plot demands of ensemble storytelling. — not that Ocean’s 8 is anywhere near as complex as, say, Avengers: Infinity War.
But getting a large ensemble of egos to feel balanced onscreen is a different kind of real-world challenge, especially when you have star-studded veterans like Bullock and Blanchett sharing scenes with relative newbies like Rihanna and Awkwafina. Given this discrepancy, it might be understandable if some scenes felt imbalanced, or some characters felt underutilized.
So it’s remarkable that none of the actresses in Ocean’s 8 ever seems like she’s “losing” a scene to someone else (except to Anne Hathaway’s character, but tilting the entire room in her direction is kind of her whole schtick).
So cheers to Ocean’s 8 for never feeling like the Sandra Bullock & Friends show, but instead surrounding Debbie with seven other characters equally deserving of their own screentime.
Cheers to Great Performances
Every actor in Ocean’s 8 gets at least one chance to shine.
As the film’s spine, Bullock does most of the heavy lifting, but she and Blanchett are each masters at underplaying a scene. Hathaway pushes herself in the other direction, playing dumb, vivacious, self-absorbed, and vulnerable in equal measure. And the rest of Debbie’s crew each get a memorable moment or two, with Sarah Paulson trying not to steal literally every scene she’s in. (Seriously, how is she not doing more films?)
Also, a special toast to James Corden, who owns the screen as the insurance investigator whom Debbie’s crew must thwart in order to make their getaway. I’ve long believed Corden is a better actor than a talk show host — his performance was one of the best surprises from Into the Woods — and he nimbly holds his own here as a man who’s just trying to unravel a case that he’s pretty sure is far less complex than it seems.
Beautiful people doing difficult things with style and grace…
This is why we go to the movies, and especially to heist movies.
And as soon as the opening strum of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” fills the theater, you realize this moment was worth every penny of your ticket price.
I write a lot about the importance of “the shared celebration,” which research has proven is one of the most emotionally satisfying ways to end a movie.
What stands out about the end of Ocean’s 8 is what they do after.
Each character makes a choice that’s not only right in line with their own personal desires, but their choices frequently have positive ripple effects. So not only do the outsiders manage to exploit the system, but they also find a way to pay it forward while simultaneously paying homage to the first movie.
Witty. Classy. Effortless. Earned.
Now that’s classic a heist movie.
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