The all-female Ocean’s 8 doesn’t hit the empowering note it was reaching for

Sarah Paulson, Sandra Bullock and Rihanna in Ocean’s 8

What makes a franchise a franchise? How tenuous must the connection be? Can you just say something is a franchise? How much crossover do you really need? Is simply lifting a premise enough to continue a franchise?

There are a lot of questions that go unanswered by Gary Ross’s zippy heist movie Ocean’s 8, an ostensible continuation of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s franchise that inhabits a thoroughly impossible space: it would almost certainly benefit from not being part of a franchise, and it would almost certainly not exist without it.

The pitch is pretty simple: take the hip and laid-back vibe of the Ocean’s heist films, but replace all the men with women (presumably, women of relatively equivalent fame to the ones in the original, although that would make Rihanna the new… Elliott Gould?!). Even ignoring the fact that the original Soderbergh films used the basic outline of an old Rat Pack movie that almost no one considers a classic as a springboard, Ocean’s 8 is pretty vaguely related to the so-called Ocean’s cinematic universe. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) is the sister of George Clooney’s now-deceased Danny Ocean; the film opens with her being released from jail after a con gone wrong with an old lover (Richard Armitage). Debbie wastes no time employing her freedom for some r’n’r; alongside her longtime partner Lou (Cate Blanchett), she plots to nab a priceless diamond necklace that has stayed in the vaults for over 50 years.

The plan involves roping a fashion designer on a downward spiral (Helena Bonham Carter) into convincing ditzy starlet Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) into wearing the necklace to the Met ball, after which Ocean and the rest of her crew (Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina) have hatched a convoluted stratagem to slip the necklace past security. Even in the realm of heist movies, Ocean’s 8 is singularly focused on the nitty-gritty of the job. Pretty much every minute of its two-hour runtime is propulsively dedicated to furthering the twists and turns of the heist. In keeping with the tradition of the series, Ross is extremely stingy with character details but even more generous with the Rube Goldberg aspects of putting together the perfect heist.

The result is a breezy but somewhat anonymous film. Though much is made textually about how the film is about female friendships and female camaraderie, precious little of the film is spent actually exploring that, instead getting lost in camera blindspots and 3D printers and technologically cutting-edge doodads. Ocean’s 8’s biggest flaw turns out to be how efficient and slick it is, rendering a cast of talented performers into glorified set dressing. Some of the performers barely get a personality at all; Awkwafina’s character, a grifter who essentially fulfills the Matt Damon role on a smaller scale, is basically defined by the fact that she skateboards.

Anne Hathaway, however, walks away with the film as the vacuous starlet and would-be mark of the piece. The character of Daphne Kluger seems to have been designed specifically to counter the idea of Hathaway as a goody-two-shoes theatre kid narc. Kluger is proudly and effortlessly vapid yet somehow smarter than she lets on, a real screwball heroine in the purest tradition. She has all the best moments in the film, which is otherwise concerned with character creation that sees Mindy Kaling’s character be defined by a) being single; and b) having a mother.

It’s a shame, because the film’s chic plastic sheen mostly works. The superficial driving force of the original — seeing cool people we love wearing cool clothes and generally being dope — is preserved, but otherwise, why bother tacking this to a franchise at all? Why isn’t this movie just enough? Ultimately, that Ocean’s 8 is part of a franchise doesn’t matter at all; it has no bearing on your enjoyment of the movie, yet there’s something that feels desperate and ultimately kind of sad about the fact that all of this empowerment has to depend on something else to even exist. Bookending the film with a couple of cameos from the very lowest rungs of the franchise doesn’t really count.

Ocean’s 8 ultimately feels devoid of a voice. It’s a frothy, light, summery fun flick with no personality whatsoever, despite valiant efforts from the lead actresses. Not all fun, frothy summer movies are created equal, and Gary Ross is no Steven Soderbergh. Ross (who’s probably best known for the first Hunger Games film but also directed such beige classics as Seabiscuit and The Free State of Jones) presents a pretty good facsimile of something zippy and fun, but Ocean’s 8 ultimately falls short.

I would, however, recommend that you go see it — because I wouldn’t mind it doing well enough that someone who isn’t Gary Ross takes on the sequel. ■

Ocean’s 8 opens in theatres on Friday, June 8. Watch the trailer here:

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