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“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).
Continue reading Ocean’s 8, like all Ocean’s movies, is about acting