Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for Ocean’s 8.
The line, from Gary Ross’ and Olivia Milch’s script, is a simple plot exposition device, but one that’s heavy in meaning. I don’t remember Danny Ocean (George Clooney) ever pulling Rusty (Brad Pitt) aside to justify his decision to gather a group of male friends to rob three casinos. Why would he? What was the height of normalcy for one becomes a central plot point for the other. And yet, the beauty of Ocean’s 8 is how it manages to transcend its status as “the female Ocean’s 11,” delivering a bold, funny and joyous crime caper that gives its predecessor a run for its money.
Female-led blockbusters are still rare enough as to be held to a higher standard than their male counterparts. There’s a much bigger pressure to get it right, and maybe for that reason, there’s still a sense of immense relief when a movie like Ocean’s 8 is good. It’s one more notch to add to a growing number of examples that prove that stories about women aren’t just worthy, they’re profitable. That’s a feeling that we perhaps need to get away from in order to move the conversation about women in film forward, but in this case, I think there’s something else to consider: There’s also a feeling of catharsis that comes from the sheer exhilaration of seeing eight women working together, honing their craft at the highest level, and doing it with style.
Still, it would be unfair to weigh down Ocean’s 8, which is ultimately a fun heist movie, with too much symbolism. We first meet Debbie just as we did her brother Danny (who has since passed away under mysterious circumstances): in the middle of a con. The target is the parole board of the prison she's called home for the last five years, eight months and 12 days — just about how long it takes to plan the perfect heist.
Her first act out of prison (after stealing some truly fabulous clothes and makeup and setting up shop in a suite overlooking Central Park, a masterclass in Anna Delvey-level grifting) is to assemble a crew, and that starts with Lou (Cate Blanchett), Debbie's former partner, who’s been toying with a semi-legitimate life as a club-owner who serves watered down vodka to yuppies.
It’s hard to resist comparing the plot of Ocean’s 8 to Ocean’s 11 because, quite honestly, the two mirror each other. Like Brad Pitt’s Rusty, it takes some convincing to get Lou on board with the scope of what Debbie has in mind: robbing a Cartier diamond necklace worth $150 million dollars right off It Girl Daphne Kluger’s (Anne Hathaway) neck in the middle of the iconic Met Gala.
Once she gives the go-ahead, though, it’s game on. The “getting the crew together” part of the heist movie is always my personal favorite, and this one doesn’t disappoint. In rapid succession, we meet: Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), a failed designer who owes millions to the IRS but whose personal connection to Anna Wintour ensures that she would be a credible choice to dress Kugler for the Met Gala; Nine Ball (Rihanna), an intensely chill Bajan hacker armed with a cue ball mouse; Amita (Mindy Kaling), a diamond expert who desperately wants a way out from her family-owned business in Jackson Heights, Queens; Tammy (Sarah Paulson), a seemingly ordinary suburban mother of two who staves off boredom by stealing massive quantities of homegoods and storing them in her garage; and Constance (Awkwafina), a petty thief from Queens whose wry wit and enthusiasm keep the whole thing grounded in a kind of awestruck reality.
You’ll notice that list only makes it to seven. The how and why of how eight comes along is revealed later in the game, and I’ll let you experience it for yourself.
It’s a testament to director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) that Ocean’s 8 doesn’t just slide by on its A-list casting, which initially felt more like a badass concept than a real movie. Sandra Bullock does the impossible in making us believe that George Clooney really does have a sibling, and she’s just as famous and charming as he is. Cate Blanchett is just the definition of cool, always and forever. But the major standouts are Rihanna, Awkwafina and Anne Hathaway, who all deliver memorable performances in roles that could have been one-dimensional for expediency’s sake.
Hathaway playing a snobby, fame-obsessed socialite is something I never thought I needed, and yet here we are. (Her delivery of: “Am I being rude?” is something I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I saw the film two weeks ago.) We would have cheered for Rihanna no matter what, but her performance is both funny and authentic, and her willingness to go against type is refreshing. (I mean, the actual queen of the Met Gala spends the whole night in a halal cart!) Awkwafina’s charm is similar to Tom Holland’s as Spider-Man — she’s just so excited to be part of this! And unlike, Shaobo Qin, who, as Yen in the previous Ocean’s films, falls into all sort of problematic stereotypes (his Chinese identity is played for laughs throughout), her defining characteristic is not that she’s Asian-American.
Still, I wish that we could have learned more about each woman’s motivations and backstory beyond just their purpose in the con. I left the theatre wanting more from each one of them, even as I enjoyed the overall effect. And while it makes sense that the film would want to tie in narratively with the Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, it relies a little too heavily on our understanding of those movies’ plot conventions for its own good.
If they pull it off, each participant will walk away with a clean $16.5 million — not a bad reason to engage in a life of crime. But that’s only part of what makes the size of the job so exciting; unspoken is the simple fact that we don’t often get to see a group of women excelling in their chosen careers, and revelling in each other’s success — even if it happens to involve grand theft.
“Why do you need to do this?” Lou asks Debbie before signing on for the job. “Because it’s what I’m good at,” she answers with a smile.
It’s something Danny would have said — but what would have come off as boisterous swagger from the mouths of men rings as an anthem when spoken by women, especially to an audience who have spent a rough year coming to terms with some very harsh realities.
Of course, Ocean’s 8 isn’t a direct response to the #MeToo movement, or the Time’s Up initiative. The project was first announced back in 2015, and was in production long before the New York Times broke its first story about the allegations against Harvey Weinstein in October 2017. But it’s impossible to experience Ocean’s 8 in 2018 in a vacuum. Especially when you consider that, as an added bonus to walking away with enough money to fund a lifetime of Veuve Cliquot and furs, Debbie has found a way to exact revenge on her smarmy, asshole art gallery curator ex-boyfriend, Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), the man responsible for landing her in jail in the first place.
Danny wanted his ex (Julia Roberts) back; Debbie just wants hers to suffer. That small twist feels deeply in line with how many women feel right now, and contributes to making Ocean’s 8 feel both universally appealing in its adventure-driven plot, but very distinctly female in its approach to it. In other words, it's a movie about women that should and can appeal to everyone.
The internet has already built up a shrine to costume designer Sarah Edward’s choice of coats, and the rest of the clothes follow in that same, glorious path. It seems like such a small detail when you think of it, but the fact that each character sports a different cut of jean (raw-hemmed, cropped flare, culottes) suggests an attention to detail from someone who wants women to feel represented on screen — even sartorially.
What’s more, far from being weighed down by an astonishing amount of celebrity cameos (Katie Holmes! Dakota Fanning! Kim Kardashian! Olivia Munn!), the film shows restraint in not giving into the urge to bring back any of the main Ocean’s 11 cast to wink at us and steal the show. Because as Lou warns Debbie, there’s really nothing worse than a con within a con.
Ocean's 8 is out in cinemas June 18