Why has a man directed Ocean’s 8? That’s the obvious question about the all-female extension of the Ocean’s franchise, with Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, sister of George Clooney’s Danny. Heists run in their family, as Debbie masterminds a girls’ group of thieves trying to purloin some jewels during the Met Gala.

It turns out that Gary Ross’s style, or lack of it, is the uneven film’s major liability

The real question, though, is why this male filmmaker, Gary Ross? It turns out that the female version of the story was his idea, so he directed and wrote (with Olivia Milch). It also turns out that his style, or lack of it, is the uneven Ocean’s major liability.

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Ross’ career is loaded with popcorn movies no better than they have to be, such as  Pleasantville, Seabiscuit and the first Hunger Games, which got by on the strength of Jennifer Lawrence. The all-star cast in Ocean’s 8 – which includes Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna and Anne Hathaway – creates some comic highlights. The film is never less than breezy entertainment, but never more than an unimaginative diversion. Ross brings a safe, pedestrian approach to a genre that should be crackling with wit and zooming through an intricate plot faster than the audience can guess what’s coming.

The story is based on the sexist premise that women thieves – and by implication women viewers – are all about fancy clothes and jewels. That superficial idea is laid over the standard Ocean’s blueprint. Beneath her cute name, Debbie is a hardened con woman who has spent five years in prison working out a foolproof plan: to make sure that a Hollywood star (Hathaway, convincing as an especially self-absorbed swan) wears a $150 million (£112m) Cartier necklace to the ball, unaware of the plot to lift it from her neck.

As in the three Las Vegas-set Ocean’s movies directed by Steven Soderbergh, this one spends some time lining up the team. The results are surprisingly erratic, depending on each actress’ effectiveness at spinning the script into something better.

Kaling’s scenes all work, as she brings perfect comic delivery to the role of a jeweller whose small family business keeps her living in her mother’s house. Helena Bonham-Carter displays a madcap energy as a has-been fashion designer who owes $5 million (£3.73m) to the IRS. Rihanna has relatively little to say, but it’s amusing to see her play against type, wearing coveralls and scruffy work boots as a hacker so good she can tap into the Met’s security system.

And Bullock glides effortlessly through the story, holding it together. Debbie doesn’t reveal much of a personality, but she does have a few good lines. “Somewhere out there is an eight-year-old girl dreaming of becoming a criminal,” she tells her crew on the night of the gala. “Do this for her.” The film could have used so much more of that acerbic tone, or really any consistent tone.

Sarah Paulson is wasted as a suburban mother, a one-time fence who misses the kick of being an outlaw. The biggest shock is how subdued and uninteresting Cate Blanchett is. Her character, a club owner named Lou, is all about an androgynous David Bowie swagger, from her name to her blonde wig to the green-sequined jumpsuit she wears to the ball. The script plants a bit of sexual innuendo into Lou’s relationship with Debbie, but in the end her character is the most cardboard of all.   

An empty vault

At times the film feels like a tourist ad for New York City, as Debbie cases the Metropolitan Museum of Art and wanders through its galleries, Modigliani and Van Gogh paintings in the background. Many brand names are on display, with a couple of forays into Cartier’s and a quick visit to the Vogue magazine offices. Many casinos got free publicity in the Soderbergh Ocean’s movies; then as now the tactic does less to enhance authenticity than to call attention to the built-in advertising.

And the parade of high fashion on the night of this fictional Met Gala misses the wit and fun of the real thing, which has become not a display of elegance but of over-the-top, sometimes hilarious bravado. For this year’s Catholic-themed ball, Rihanna wore a comic masterpiece, a takeoff on the Pope’s wardrobe, with a silvery beaded mitre to match her minidress and coat. The on-screen Met Ball takes its fashion ultra-seriously, a lost opportunity in a film meant to be funny.

The dressed-down moments actually have the most life. Kaling, dressed as the kitchen help, locks herself in a Met ladies room and surreptitiously dismantles a necklace. James Corden turns up eventually as an insurance investigator, who happily is not a bumbling cliché, and instantly energises the story.

Throughout, the movie teases the idea that Danny Ocean is dead. Or is that another of his long cons? The unstated tease, of course, is the possibility that Clooney will show up. As with all things in Ocean’s 8, it’s best to approach this with lowered expectations. 

A successful woman-centric comedy, like Bridesmaids, plays off rituals different from men’s. A failure like the latest Ghostbusters proves that just subbing female characters into a franchise is never enough. And considering what a truly creative filmmaker – anyone from Soderbergh to Greta Gerwig – might have done, it’s frustrating that this Ocean’s is so timid. Why bother rebooting a franchise if you’re not going to break the mould, at least a little? 


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