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Ocean’s 8.

Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures

  • Ocean’s 8
  • Directed by Gary Ross
  • Written by Gary Ross and Olivia Milch
  • Starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway
  • Classification PG
  • 110 minutes

rating

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There’s a certain predictability to a heist movie – the guys get the goods, or die trying. So what new trick does Ocean’s 8 have up its sleeve? Gals, of course. Eight in fact. And those eight are almost enough to carry off this caper …

First of all, let it be said that the all-female angle in this update of the Ocean’s franchise is a good idea. Newly liberated from prison, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the now deceased Danny (George Clooney), plans a daring theft: she is going to get Cartier to lend a gazillion-dollar necklace to a glittering celebrity to wear to the Metropolitan Museum’s annual costume-ball gala, where she is going to pluck it off the lady’s neck.

So, finally liberated from all those cheesy casinos, the Ocean’s franchise gets some high-society style – bling, frocks and a cameo from the real Anna Wintour no less. Apparently screenwriters Olivia Milch and Gary Ross (who also directs) are students of the 2016 documentary The First Monday in May, about the event of the New York calendar, because the ball scenes are executed with both loving social detail and some witty digs at the gala’s many pretensions.

The writers also have a satisfyingly complicated plot that includes roping in a bankrupt fashion designer to dress an unsuspecting celebrity, photographing the US$150-million necklace and copying it, hacking the museum’s security system and infiltrating the ball at about five different levels. For this, Debbie needs a team – and therein lies a problem, not simply with this movie but with the whole franchise. The Ocean’s movies are busy ensemble pieces, stuffed with big names playing small roles, few of them ever given quite enough space to establish much beyond the professional tics of muscle men, safe-crackers and pickpockets.

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Here, the disappointment starts right off the top. Bullock is firm as the preternaturally self-assured Debbie but little more than that; her performance as the con artist is reined in so tightly that she only finally appears to be having some fun when she gets to don a blond updo and German accent on the night of the ball. Cate Blanchett exudes the very personification of cool as her chief collaborator Lou, but that is about all she does. The grand actress is as seriously underemployed as her character, a criminal mastermind busy watering down the vodka in the nightclub she owns until Debbie shows up with her plan. A hint of sexual chemistry between the reunited friends in early scenes is sadly quashed; both performances feel weighed down by missed opportunities comic and dramatic.

As the gem-cutter Amita, Mindy Kaling is also given disappointingly little to do with no chance to show off her skills at repartee and deadpan once a single joke about her domineering Indian mother is out of the way. Sarah Paulson, on the other hand, does a cleverly quiet job throughout playing a pleasant suburban mom who serves as a fence: the joke is simply in the improbability of that juxtaposition and she works it. Rihanna also fares well, providing a steady if background presence as the unflappable computer hacker Nine Ball, balanced out by Awkwafina’s manic touches in the role of the light-fingered skateboarder Constance, who is actually going to lift the necklace.

But the best scenes here mainly take the shape of fashion industry satire with Helena Bonham Carter playing the much distracted and easily corrupted Irish dress designer Rose Weil in another of her comically off-kilter, bad-hair-day performances. Her foil, and the real star of Ocean’s 8, is Anne Hathaway as Daphne Kluger, the apparently dim-witted and amusingly self-absorbed celeb whose beautiful neck will be used to carry the jewels. Hathaway’s screwball performance toys wickedly with star-system self-parody and keeps the movie chugging along.

But it does little more than chug. It never races: Ross’s pacing is erratic, too emphatically ticking off the plot points before the heist and then rushing through the conclusion. A well-chosen soundtrack of both hip and retro tunes, plus sequences that flip through images of jewels or famous artwork, give the film some hint of the flash Steven Soderbergh brought to Ocean’s 11 through 13, but there’s no consistency to Ross’s style.

The film rejoices in several post-heist twists; one featuring an insurance investigator that provides some welcome surprises; another featuring a holdover from the previous movies that is poorly explained, hurriedly recounted and implausible rather than revelatory. Implausible? Well, all heist movies including the Ocean’s franchise are wildly implausible, and pulling them off is all in the sleight of hand. That’s a magic trick that Ross has not entirely mastered; if Ocean’s 8 doesn’t thrill, don’t blame the women.

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