‘Ocean’s 8’ Tries Its Best, But Still Cons Its Audience

The cast shines, but they can only do so much with their weak script and listless direction.

I started thinking about American Pie Presents: Band Camp when the framed George Clooney photo appeared in Ocean’s 8, and I couldn’t stop. For those lucky enough not to know, American Pie Presents: Band Camp was a 2005 “spin-off” of the original American Pie trilogy (which had concluded with American Wedding two years earlier). But this one bypassed a theatrical release and went straight to DVD, and its only ties to the earlier films were in a shared narrative and tone, brief appearances by a pair of supporting characters (played by Eugene Levy and Chris Owen), and a plot that centered around the sibling of a character from the first trilogy.

Now look, I’m not suggesting that Ocean’s 8 is nearly as putrid as American Pie Presents: Band Camp– it’s an absolutely good-enough piece of summer fluff, and it’s probably some sort of blasphemy to invoke a title like that anywhere near the vicinity of a cast like this. But again, once it was in my head, it was hard to get it out. The similarities (tone, pair of shared supporting characters, sibling-driving plot) are the same here as in the original Ocean’s trilogy: Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) is fresh out of the joint, where she’s concocted an elaborate and ingenious heist that will not only make her and her team of super-crooks rich, but will settle a personal score to boot. Yet it feels like a warmed-over retread, lacking the personal touches and bits of pizzazz that made that original trilogy so special.

You can’t fault the cast, which does their very best with the thin script by Olivia Milch and director Gary Ross. Bullock is ideally cast – she is absolutely the female equivalent of Mr. Clooney, who has a similar breezy, offhand way of delivering his cocky line readings in these things. Cate Blanchett is magnetic and unflappable, Helena Bonham-Carter is uproarious, and Akwafina steals pretty much any scene she wanders into. The standout, however, is Anne Hathaway, with a portrait of movie-star vanity and self-absorption that’s so marvelously self-aware, I’m not sure why they bothered to give her character another name. (This is, after all, the series in which Julia Roberts once played both her character and herself.) She has a tiny moment of ecstasy, when first trying on the necklace at the heist’s center, that’s so simultaneously funny and sexy, you’ll wish she’d been born early enough to do a couple dozen screwball comedies.

To its credit, Ross and Milch’s script has a couple of good lines (“Aren’t there any hackers who aren’t Russian?” “There are barely any Russians who aren’t hackers”) and clever details, and the job itself is quite satisfying – as one character notes, “It’s always the grace notes and the little attention to detail that really makes the whole thing sing.” And there’s one funny, tacit acknowledgment of a lightweight movie like this in the swirl of discussion about onscreen representation, a pep talk in which Bullock advises her crew not to do this for themselves or each other: “Somewhere out there, there’s an eight-year-old girl in bed dreaming of being a criminal. Do this for her.”

Perhaps if there were more bits like that, in which Ross and his ace ensemble allowed themselves to untether from the franchise and do their own thing, Ocean’s 8 wouldn’t feel like such a pale imitation. But it follows those films, particularly the first one, so closely that it ends up inviting unflattering comparisons. The first scene (it’s in the trailers), in which Ms. Ocean assures her parole board that she’s a changed person, is a virtual carbon copy of Ocean’s Eleven’s opening – so it’s that much more noticeable that whereas original director Steven Soderbergh staged and shot it with mood and flair, Ross makes it look like an episode of Law & Order. Soderbergh’s novelty wipes and transitions are aped nearly as poorly, and the script keeps replicating the beats of Ted Griffin’s Eleven script (Bullock’s reunion with former and now slumming partner Blanchett, in the Brad Pitt role; a scene where Blanchett calls Bullock out for jeopardizing the job by making it personal) with equal parts laziness and clumsiness. James Corden appears late in the film, extending the narrative as a tireless investigator, a postscript that unavoidably recalls Soderbergh’s more recent heist pic, Logan Lucky. And I’m sorry, it’s impossible to set the climax of a heist movie in the Met without making your audience think of that wonderful Thomas Crown Affairremake.

There’s nothing automatically wrong with a film that echoes its predecessors – the heist movie in particular is built on the foundation of cinematic tradition – but Ocean’s 8, in scene after scene, is done no favors by the reminders. Or maybe the point is that Soderbergh (who is credited as a producer here) was able to not only execute those grace notes, but to do them with such effervescence that it looked easy. It clearly isn’t; Ross isn’t light on his feet the way Soderbergh is, so the picture drags, and he keeps muffing the half-hearted buttons, leaving scenes that just kinda peter out.

It’s a shame. Ocean’s 8 isn’t offensively bad, and there are long stretches that basically work. But with this premise, and this cast, it should’ve been an all-timer. I kept waiting for it to become that. And then it ended.

“Ocean’s 8” is out today in wide release.