'Ocean's 8' steals its stars' own spotlight 

click to enlarge The women of Ocean’s 8.

The women of Ocean’s 8.

If "cool" can be defined as casually succeeding while not seeming to give an effort, then Ocean's 8 meets its mandate in a certain sense. Almost from start to finish, the film is carried off with what seems like only a cursory sense of interest, a basically attractive but rarely stylish tour through the obvious.

Let's front-load the plot here: Ocean's 8 follows the original heist trilogy by announcing the death of mastermind Danny Ocean (George Clooney, present only via character name and still photo). His sister, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), is out on parole after being turned over to the feds by former partner in crime and romance Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), a rich gallerist with no personality whose scrambled eggs Debbie was pretty wild about. Now free, she's eager to get back in the high-stakes heist game with a plan to recruit a team, infiltrate the Met Gala, and nab a six-pound diamond necklace — though she's got a bone to pick with the old boyfriend as well.

Though Bullock seems the most at home in her role, parading around in a range of fine costumes and holding the camera well in some early solo sequences, it's a real question why most of the cast is here. Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter, and Mindy Kaling play respectively a stoner-rasta hacker, an out-of-date, goth-Lolita fashion designer (a mean-spirited bit of casting and writing), and a jewelry maker with a 3-D printer. All three of them — like most of the cast — seem stifled here by a script that never plays to their personae or abilities, taking time instead to depict characters explaining Tinder, eating pizza, or using weed as a (predictably flubbed and dated) punch line.

However one might feel about Steven Soderbergh's first trilogy, those movies (especially the first) had a clear sense of interest in them, a range of elements that seemed to visibly excite both camera and director — and a kind of glow throughout brought on by its camera's fawning admiration for its stars. Soderbergh held a profound fascination with (among many things): a well-timed, improbable stunt, surveillance culture, the Western security apparatus, the failings of the same, the technical problems a heist presents, both narrative and technical — with what makes for a job well done, really. Ocean's 11 through Ocean's 13 also, more sweetly, recognized its leads as aspirational figures; Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Brad Pitt et al were free to impress as stars. Whether the characters were sipping wine, gambling, or berating one another during wild stunts and capers, Soderbergh — operating his own camera for all three movies as "Peter Andrews" — conveyed an outrageous, if satirical, sense of luxury throughout, making one feel a frequent sense of privilege in drinking all that in.

There's little of that in Ocean's 8, though in one line Bullock gestures toward awareness of the film's potential as aspirational: "Somewhere out there is an 8-year-old girl lying in bed dreaming of being a criminal." That may be, but like most jokes in 8 it misses the point while infantilizing the (probably) adult viewer. I can't speak for every audience, but greater confidence, agency, power and the chance to do fun, exciting work — the stuff stars appear to possess — are the things most viewers really long for. The heist stuff, with all the visual interest that travel and luxurious settings typically tend to provide, is chiefly a gateway to that.

Very rarely does this Ocean's director (Gary Ross of Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, and Hunger Games) seem like he'd buy what he's working to sell, on either the genre or the star-power count. The security apparatus depicted here — chiefly at the Met — is flimsy and inept, the cameras too easily blocked and guards too easily duped. An early, accomplished shoplifting sequence shows Bullock's easy traipsing through luxury stores and hotels that we place a naive amount of faith in the goodwill of others. But there' little tension in that worldview for the rest of the film, for in Ocean's 8 no sense of real trust or security is ever built up; surveillance systems exist less to protect any asset than to be easily flouted. This doesn't exactly flatter its leads, who come out looking not particularly accomplished and whose planning often seems amateurish and undercooked. The film's overdrawn exposition — combined with the weight of unconvincing character gimmicks (stoner, WASP, skater, etc.) — crowds out its owns stars, to whom the camera is dutifully attentive but never particularly interested in. This is a movie with faith in little, least of all its leading women, who come off by the end looking absolutely robbed.

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