“I’d like to play a more central role this time,” says Linus (Matt Damon) in Ocean’s 12. He’s nominally talking about his participation in a coordinated group heist, but the language is unmistakable and the self-referential tone unavoidable: Linus, played by a very famous actor who is nonetheless slightly less famous than his biggest co-stars, sounds very much like an actor, asking for a bigger role in the ensemble for the sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11. Like a lot of actors, Linus—a pickpocket, a bit younger than Danny Ocean (George Clooney) or his right-hand man Rusty (Brad Pitt), and certainly less experienced—takes his job very seriously. In Ocean’s 13, Linus goes into full con-man mode, not just planning or thieving, but playing a character in order to deceive a casino boss’s right-hand lady (Ellen Barkin). He insists on wearing an exaggerated false nose to complete the illusion, as his colleagues look on with indifference. “The nose plays!” is his forceful refrain.
Ocean’s 13 doesn’t go as far through the looking glass as Ocean’s 12, but taken together, Soderbergh’s trilogy does resemble a hall of mirrors, both for its illusive tricks and its funhouse consideration of star vanity. To this hall, the new female-driven Ocean’s 8 adds a few more mirrors, though mostly not engineered by Soderbergh himself. He’s on hand as producer, but has handed the directorial reins to his friend Gary Ross. In the run-up to his sort-of retirement, Soderbergh did some second-unit directing on The Hunger Games; here, Ross returns the favor by directing all of Ocean’s 8 as if on second-unit. This probably isn’t a fair criticism—few directors have the command of the heist-movie form that consummate problem-solver Soderbergh seems to summon with the snap of his fingers—but the over-the-top quasi-professionalism of an Ocean gang has the unfortunate side effect of exposing journeymen. In Soderbergh’s trilogy, he keeps all of the intricate, ridiculous prep-work moving at a clip, punctuating the most amusing moments with sharp cuts. Ross directs scenes that appear to be wandering around in search of their punchline before hustling away empty-handed.
Yet Ocean’s 8 can’t help but follow in the tradition of its predecessors, even when Ross seems unable of keeping up, nevermind setting a pace. Some of it is that all-lady ensemble. Instead of George Clooney leading a mixture of Hollywood royalty and game character actors, Sandra Bullock heads up a starry crew that includes Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, and YouTube star Awkafina. Anne Hathaway is there too, although her character Daphne Kluger isn’t recruited as part of the gang; rather, she’s a vain yet needy actress who Debbie Ocean (Bullock) and company must manipulate into wearing an extremely valuable necklace at the Met Ball, so they can switch it with a fake and rob its owners blind (and maybe frame someone else for the job).
Though she’s no kind of heist expert, Hathaway’s character really links the movie to the other Ocean’s pictures, even moreso than a couple of cameo appearances, because the Ocean’s series, as it turns out, is very much about acting. Daphne Kluger brings that subtext closer to the surface, and Hathaway plays her narcissism to the hilt as her character grasps for a semi-has-been designer (Carter) just because she’s photographed with another star, snaps at anyone in sight, and has her insecurities mollified when she’s reassured that only her neck could pull off the elaborate jewelry she’s about to wear.
It could be said that Hathaway is engaging in a kind of self-parody, though Kluger’s generically/stereotypically actress-y behavior doesn’t have much relation to the circa-2012 notion of Hathaway as an overeager theater kid. Though Hathaway makes a delightful theft of her every scene, her movie-star image isn’t tweaked the same way as earlier Ocean’s crews. Soderbergh loves to toy with the expectations that come along with star performances, having and eating more cake as the series goes along: Clooney’s Danny Ocean is both a suave smoothie and (in Ocean’s 12) rattled by perceptions of his age (the actor was 43 when Ocean’s 12 came out, and Danny is appalled when he realizes some of his coworkers think he’s around 50); Damon’s Linus, as mentioned, is as much of a straight-arrow try-hard as a thief can be; Rusty lays the Brad Pitt charm so far back that the performance becomes a French-fry-munching exercise in minimalism; Julia Roberts, still America’s Sweetheart back in 2001, plays Danny’s wife Tess as snappish and understandably irritated with this thieving antics. By the second movie, characters are warned not to mention the fact that Tess looks an awful lot like, you guessed it, Julia Roberts, setting up a sequence where, of course, Julia Roberts engages in an extremely reluctant impersonation of Julia Roberts. “You’re playing a role, I’m playing a real person!” she yells at Linus, orchestrator of the illusion.
Ocean’s 8 makes some light tweaks to the personas of its stars. Sandra Bullock, another former designated sweetheart, downplays both her light-comic charm and emotionally open dramatic sides as Danny’s little sister, seeming far less interested than Clooney in eye-twinkling and insinuating pauses. When her sidekick Lou (Blanchett) asks why she’s planning this elaborate heist, she offers a casual response: It’s what she’s good at. There’s more to the story than that, but if anything Debbie looks even more unflappable than Danny, rarely betraying a sense of panic or even scheming; she’s done most of her scheming from a prison cell, over the course of years. Like a powerful movie star, now she just needs to show up.
But the movie doesn’t make Debbie or Daphne a figure of fun for their oppositional exaggerations (deadpan and decidedly not, respectively). Ross doesn’t have Soderbergh’s teasing vibe, and lets the rest of the movie luxuriate in the stars’ personas. Mindy Kaling is funny, glamour-conscious, yet relatable. Cate Blanchett is fashionable, cool, in possession of casually excellent taste. Rihanna in particular is like a fantasy-best-friend version of her pop-star persona: a little softer, a little more approachable, but a straight-up genius who does what she wants when she wants, including rocking a Met Ball dress with the best of them. The more supporting actresses, Awkafina and Sarah Paulson, have less to do, seemingly because their personalities aren’t as clearly defined by their outside images. (There were plenty of thinner, smaller characters in the Soderbergh movies, but they were shticky enough to make an impression.)
This is all much less clever than Soderbergh’s movies, less eager to wheedle audiences’ expectations or stars’ vanity. It’s still effective, though, albeit in a different way. Absent a strong directorial figure (why Soderbergh or any number of women didn’t direct this one remains a mystery), these personas drive the whole film. Even when Hathaway goofs on the indulgences of fame, the movie itself feels celebratory, not derisive (I don’t think it spoils anything to note that Daphne’s story does not end in any kind of comeuppance). Previous movies placed stars like Damon, Don Cheadle, or Carl Reiner in elaborate goofball disguises for put-ons and distractions. Here, many of the women change into glamorous Met Ball-ready outfits, but they don’t look much like disguises so much as their true selves emerging gloriously. For that reason among many, the heist sequence is good fun, very entertaining, without generating more than a few pockets of suspense.
Ocean’s 11 and its sequels were also about the pleasures of watching movie stars pretend to be a gang of thieves, but Soderbergh’s self-awareness kept poking at those pleasures, ribbing its stars as it rubbed elbows with them, perhaps owing to super-nerd Soderbergh’s perpetual outsider status, even when he’s rubbing elbows with the in-crowd (he’s directed Clooney plenty of times, but is Clooney ever really his on-screen representative?). Ross, or more accurately his movie, or more accurately the movie’s cast, brings the series back to the simpler trick of just watching charming, attractive, professional people pretend to be themselves. The movie doesn’t question itself, or riff on its own silliness, or deliver much of anything beyond its surface pleasures, which themselves aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as Soderbergh’s. The fact that Bullock, Blanchett, Hathaway, and company get away with it is an impressive, even infectious, flex of female star power.