Friday, June 8, 2018

Ocean's 8: Larkish ladies of larceny

Ocean's 8 (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for brief profanity, fleeting drug use and mild suggestive content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.8.18

As long as reasonable care is taken — sharp script, skilled direction, a competent cast — light-hearted caper thrillers can’t miss.

That’s definitely the case with Ocean’s 8.

With their compatriots "on assignment" at Cartier headquarters, the bulk of the team —
from left, Debbie (Sandra Bullock), Tammy (Sarah Paulson), Nine Ball (Rihanna),
Lou (Cate Blancett) and Constance (Awkwafina) — tracks progress via a computer monitor.
If this new film pales slightly when compared to 2001’s sparkling remake of Ocean’s Eleven, it’s mostly because the formula has lost some luster via repetition. Still, the well-designed gender switch compensates for such familiarity, and there’s no question that director Gary Ross — who also scripted this re-boot, with Olivia Milch — assembles the pieces with élan, and then guides them through a devious chess game laden with twists ... at least one of which likely will be a surprise.

Mostly, Ross delivers the necessary level of fun, which was so crucial to the 2001 predecessor’s success. We always had a sense that George Clooney & Co. were playing themselves, as much as their characters — which was absolutely true of the 1960 Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin original — and that added effervescent bonhomie to the action. These were guys with whom we wanted to share war stories over cocktails; the same is true of this Girls Just Want To Have Fun reworking.

And yes — just to be clear — this gender switch is far better, in every possible way, than 2016’s conceptually similar but otherwise misguided remake of Ghostbusters.

We meet Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) — the equally larcenous sister of Clooney’s Danny Ocean — immediately following a prison stretch of five years, eight months and 12 days. Rather than accept this sentence as a lesson learned, Debbie spent the entire time devising, refining and perfecting what she now believes will be the perfect crime: the theft of the Toussaint, a unique diamond necklace valued at $150 million, which stays locked in an impenetrable vault in the bowels of the Cartier mansion.

All she needs is a crew.

Bullock’s Debbie is perky, poised and polished: utterly unflappable, and generally sporting a mildly self-confident smirk that potential marks immediately find disarming. This contrasts nicely with the wary and somewhat hardened Lou (Cate Blanchett), Debbie’s former partner in crime, who is less than enthusiastic when given the opportunity to resume their illicit ways.

Debbie mocks; Lou challenges. Bullock and Blanchett make an excellent team, and the script teases us with the possibility that their relationship might run deeper than mere professional camaraderie.

They’re the Clooney/Brad Pitt surrogates who explore and exploit former connections to gather a drolly mismatched team:

• Amita (Mindy Kaling), adept at the family’s jewelry business, chafes under her mother’s “be a good girl” expectations, and itches to unleash her devilish side.

• Tammy (Sarah Paulson), a former fence, seems to have transformed into a chirpy suburban wife and mother ... until one encounters her garage, filled to the rafters with stolen merchandise awaiting dispatch. Tammy’s response, when Debbie wonders aloud what her husband thinks of all this, is priceless.

• Constance (Awkwafina, née Nora Lum), a fast-talking street hustler and deft pickpocket, possesses light-fingered hands that are quicker than the eye.

• Nine Ball (Rihanna), a dreadlocked computer whiz, is reputed to be “one of the best hackers on the East Coast.”

They’re already inclined to be shady, and therefore accept Debbie’s eyebrow-lifting proposition quite enthusiastically. But their next ally needs persuasion, as (thus far) she’s been inherently honest: down-on-her-luck fashion designer Rose Weil — “so yesterday” — played with a hilarious blend of shattered vulnerability and fussy, haute couture flamboyance by Helena Bonham Carter.

The scheme is ingenious, as Debbie has no intention of trying to penetrate the Cartier vault. Instead, she intends to woo world-famous actress and current “It girl” Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) with an original Rose Weil gown that simply must be complemented — when Kluger attends the prestigious annual Met Gala — by having the Toussaint around her neck.

Hathaway’s performance is as sublime as the script’s merciless skewering of her vain, vacuous, condescending and thoroughly contemptible character. Daphne is a media-enhanced monster: a self-styled, aristocratic Hilton/Kardashian clone famous solely for being famous, and absolutely ideal as the unwitting “mule” who will bring the Toussaint within reach of Debbie’s complex machinations.

It seems impossible, because Met security — electronic, surveillance and roving guards — is no less thorough than that at the Cartier mansion ... and the necklace will be accompanied by plenty of Cartier chaperones, as well.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that Ross pays more attention to the character interaction — and particularly the delightfully snarky dialog — than the preparatory steps taken to organize and then execute the heist. That’s not necessarily a problem — all the actresses interact well together — but it does shift the tone. Clooney’s operation milked viewer anxiety from setbacks and unexpected hiccups, but there’s nothing resembling tension or suspense in this caper. Everything goes too smoothly; there’s never a doubt that Debbie & Co. will encounter anything they can’t immediately surmount.

We therefore must be content with the droll asides; and the deadpan, don’t-mess-with-me expressions that result when street-smart Constance and Nine Ball are questioned by their posh companions; and Bonham Carter’s flighty, fidgety nervousness; and Hathaway’s imperious entitlement ... and so much more. Goodness, merely watching Hathaway and Bonham Carter’s expressive glances is worth the price of admission.

Ross and Milch shrewdly acknowledge this film’s predecessors on several occasions, and not merely via Debbie’s shared family history. A few faces remembered from Ocean’s Eleven pop up, and the always delightful James Corden makes the most of his third-act role as a dogged insurance investigator. Be on the lookout, as well, for this quartet of veteran actresses: Elizabeth Ashley, Dana Ivey, Marlo Thomas and Mary Louise Wilson.

Sarah Edwards’ costume design is wonderful, most notably with the absurd creations into which Bonham Carter is poured; she looks like an echo of her Red Queen, from “Alice in Wonderland.”

Daniel Pemberton’s jazz-inflected soundtrack pays welcome homage to David Holmes’ similarly funky scores for all three of the Clooney films, and Ross also makes savvy use of well-placed pop tunes.

Ocean’s 8 fulfills its mission: It’s smart, stylish and entertaining. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing Debbie Ocean gather this crew again ... but, next time, they really need to tackle something more difficult.

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