The Modestly Diverting Gender Swap of Ocean’s 8

The director Gary Ross’s all-female twist on the heist franchise coasts on the star power of its cast, led by Sandra Bullock.

Warner Bros.

“You are not doing this for me. You are not doing this for you. Somewhere out there is an 8-year-old girl dreaming of becoming a criminal. Do this for her.”

Thus does the master thief Debbie Ocean exhort her female partners in crime on the eve of their big jewelry heist in the director Gary Ross’s Ocean’s 8. It’s a cunning bit of narrative transposition. Because Debbie—played by Sandra Bullock—is of course really speaking to all the “girls” in the audience, whatever their ages might be. Because while few presumably dream of being actual criminals, who doesn’t dream of being effortlessly prepossessing, movie-star glamorous, and utterly in control? Not necessarily someone who would stage a daring robbery at the Met Gala; but someone who, if she so chose, could.

This is unfortunately about as close as Ross comes to integrating any meaningful gender insights into his film. (I’ll note one exception in a moment.) Ocean’s 8 is essentially a sex-swapped reboot of Ocean’s Eleven, and if the result is only a modestly diverting star-power delivery device—well, the Soderbergh–Clooney version wasn’t much more than that itself.

Like the prior movie, this one begins with its protagonist—Bullock’s Debbie is the sister of Clooney’s Danny Ocean—getting paroled from prison. (“If I were to be released,” she humbly tells the parole board, “I would just want the simple life.” Later, watching her don a designer gown and prepare to strut out the prison gates, a guard asks ironically, “The simple life?” She replies coyly: “I had five years to rehearse.”) Next—after a clever bout of high-end shoplifting and a luxury-hotel grift—comes the hooking up with an old partner, Lou (Cate Blanchett, in what is essentially the Brad Pitt role); then, the assembly of a team; and finally, the heist itself. Also, as before, there is an unnecessary and moderately tedious subplot involving an old flame (Richard Armitage) who works in the art world.

This time, the team consists of a bankrupt fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter), a jewelry-maker (Mindy Kaling), a hacker (Rihanna), a fence (Sarah Paulson), and a pickpocket (Awkwafina). Rounding out the team—though she does not know it—is a celebrity patsy named Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). Though the Met is hosting a display of royal jewelry from around the world, the actual target of the heist is not part of the exhibit. Rather, it is a unique Cartier necklace called the Toussaint: a $150 million, six-pound throat-chandelier that Debbie et al. will persuade Kluger to wear when she attends the Gala—which the film describes, accurately enough, as the “most exclusive party in America.”

As heists go, it’s a moderately ingenious idea, and for the most part, the movie floats along amiably on the tide of its stars’ charisma and the capable if uninspired direction of Ross, who also co-wrote the script with Olivia Milch. (One can’t help but wonder what Soderbergh would have done with this material.) Bullock carries off the central role with aplomb, although—like Clooney with Pitt—she’s somewhat upstaged by a winning turn from Blanchett. The rest of the cast is given less to do, but they generally make the most of their moments. (Asked how she explains to her suburban husband the garage full of boosted mountain bikes and washing machines, Paulson’s fence explains, “eBay.”) Alas, one of the few ways the movie fails to ape Ocean’s Eleven is the absence of an old-school crook like those played by Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner—the latter of whom supplied several of that film’s best scenes. But at least as consolation we get James Corden as an insurance investigator who tries to unravel the crime in the final act.

The greatest pleasure of Ocean’s 8, however, is Hathaway’s Kluger. Although the precise origin of the character’s global fame is left to the imagination—actress? model? heiress?—Hathaway delivers a sharp, witty dissection of female celebrity, at once impenetrably vain and entitled, yet also riven with self-doubt. It is both the most pointed and most amusing way in which the movie toys with gender expectations.

The movie does lose some steam post-heist. This is particularly true when it is revealed that there was a secret heist-within-the-heist, which has the perverse effect of undermining the entire premise of the plot. Ross should have quit while he was ahead. Instead, he couldn’t resist gilding the Toussaint.