The big heist in “Ocean’s 8” — the theft of a $150-million diamond necklace, daringly scheduled to take place at the Met Gala — is predicated on the careful manipulation of a “blind spot” outside a women’s restroom. Amid heightened security at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a merry girl gang of crooks, led by a well-matched Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, must block off a 9-foot-square space where a woman can squeeze in and out of the lavatory undetected by surveillance cameras.
If you’ll pardon the tortured metaphor, Hollywood has long nurtured some rather large blind spots of its own, especially where the representation of women on-screen is concerned. In its enjoyably slippery, lightweight fashion, “Ocean’s 8” — a canny multimillion-dollar answer to the question “How about ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’ but with women?” — has every intention of functioning as a corrective. With deft calculation, sharp timing and the faintest of eye-rolls, this insouciant charmer slips into its own private corner where the rules of that restroom apply: no boys allowed.
That goes for the movie’s principal cast, of course, not for its potential audience. It should go without saying that a splashy Hollywood caper picture featuring one or two (or eight) female leads should have as much appeal for men as for women. But then, given the industry’s infuriating habit of insulting and compartmentalizing the public’s taste, the obvious sometimes bears repeating.
The movie itself, capably if anonymously directed by Gary Ross (“The Hunger Games,” “Seabiscuit”) from a well-carpentered script he wrote with Olivia Milch, wears its gender politics with matter-of-fact ease. Like 2016’s distaff reboot of “Ghostbusters,” only with better results and far less accompanying fanboy outrage, “Ocean’s 8” is very much a movie about women at work and having a grand time doing it.
The film’s pleasures may be secondhand, even zirconium-grade — it is, effectively, a rehash of a remake — but the sight of Rihanna hacking into a security company’s mainframe or Bullock improvising in perfect German offers no small compensation.
The first scene drops us without fanfare into a prison cell where Debbie Ocean (Bullock), a wily thief at the end of a five-year prison sentence, assures a parole officer that she’s looking forward to “the simple life.” Her latest scheme has already begun. (Maybe the previous one never ended.) The sequence that follows, in which Debbie smoothly cons her way into a swanky Manhattan hotel room, is a delectable cinematic amuse-bouche, a tour de force of low-stakes duplicity.
Duplicity runs in the family. Debbie is the estranged younger sister of Danny Ocean, the suave operator played by George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” trilogy, who remains off-screen here apart from a brief glimpse in a family photo. A brief Clooney-Bullock reunion might have made for some interesting fireworks (as well as a fascinating parallel-universe sequel to “Gravity”), but the message is clear: She doesn’t need him. Neither does the movie.
Instead, Debbie renews her ties with nightclub owner Lou (Blanchett, rocking peroxide-blond bangs and aviator shades), who used to be her confidante and partner, in possibly more than one sense. (I’m speculating, based on the effortless crackle and bittersweet undertow of Bullock and Blanchett’s chemistry.) If Debbie is the mastermind — she plotted out the entire Met Gala job behind bars — then Lou is her designated task rabbit, the one who will iron out the wrinkles in her scheme and help assemble the crack team they need to pull it off.
They choose their collaborators well, and so do the filmmakers, who have a knack for selecting actors both according to and against type. For sheer incandescence, Rihanna is the ensemble’s biggest get, though the movie slyly dims her star wattage by casting her as Nine Ball, a tech whiz in an Army jacket. It’s nice to see Helena Bonham Carter, too often enlisted to play witches or British monarchs (or both), tapping into a very human sense of desperation as Rose Weil, a high-end fashion designer whose reputation has seen better days.
Sarah Paulson, always good at projecting steely efficiency, arrives late in the game as Tammy, a suburban housewife who turns out to be a master of corporate skulduggery. The rising rapper-comedian Awkwafina puts an engagingly street-smart spin on the part of a wily pickpocket named Constance, while Mindy Kaling demonstrates a similarly light touch as jeweler extraordinaire Amita, who is tasked with handling the coveted goods.
The necklace, held in an underground Cartier vault, will only be excavated for a truly special reason — like, say, the Met Gala, where it will grace the neck of a world-famous celebrity named Daphne Kluger. Given the actress playing Daphne, you almost wonder why they didn’t just name her Anne Hathaway and be done with it.
Delivering a lovably monstrous send-up of Hollywood privilege, Hathaway is an impudent delight; her performance suggests nothing so much as a wry rejoinder to her fashion-illiterate heroine from “The Devil Wears Prada” — an association cheekily underscored by a cameo from longtime Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.
Some might chafe at the decision to set the first all-female “Ocean’s” movie at one of the world’s most ridiculously lavish fashion showcases, as if an excess of glamour somehow negated its feminist credentials. Let them chafe. Jewel heists and costume galas admittedly weren’t the only way to go; I look forward to an “Ocean’s 9” in which our heroines spend two hours infiltrating a neuroscientists’ convention, or masquerading as septic-tank cleaners in Fresno.
But the earlier “Ocean’s” trilogy didn’t exactly skimp on male beauty or hedonistic excess, and “Ocean’s 8,” although unabashedly political in intent, has no intention of denying us the basic cinematic pleasures of seeing gorgeous people modeling gorgeous clothes in gorgeous locations. It’s savvy enough to recognize that politics and pulchritude make excellent bedfellows.
And so it’s no surprise that costume designer Sarah Edwards emerges as one of the major below-the-line players, not least because she knows that glamour, like any precious resource, benefits from modulation. Not every outfit is a winner (Rose’s poor design taste is something of a running gag), and what Rihanna wears to the Met Gala here can’t quite compare with what she wore to the Met Gala in real life. It’s Blanchett who emerges as sartorial MVP, looking equally stunning in green sequins, leather pants, a cheetah-print jacket or, as the plot may necessitate, a caterer’s uniform.
If anything, frankly, “Ocean’s 8” isn’t stylish enough, a deficit that has less to do with the actors than with the strictly functional quality of Ross’ direction. His work here is stolid but controlled, and he largely stays out of the material’s way, allowing both the basic logic and the utter preposterousness of the heist plot to shine through.
What he doesn’t bring to the table is the sheer filmmaking brio — the dazzling use of color, the near-abstract visual kineticism — the sheer filmmaking brio — of Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” movies, even the ones (“Ocean’s Twelve” and “Ocean’s Thirteen”) that were more haphazardly scrapped together than this one.
“Ocean’s 8” has something to prove, and that determination is both its strength and its limitation. It works hard, stays on point, delivers a few nifty surprises and sometimes rises to a thrilling pitch of excitement — at least, before the story peters out in its belabored third act. What the movie refuses to do is dazzle, or resonate, or overstay its welcome, which is another way of saying it doesn’t really linger. As “8’s” go, it could stand to be a little crazier.
Rating: PG-13, for language, drug use and some suggestive content
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: Opens June 8 in general release