For a caper movie to be really fun, it’s got to know the fundamentals. Then twist them.
“Ocean’s 8,” the latest in the hip heist franchise, knows what it’s doing. But, lucky for us, it also knows what we expect it to do. And the clever way it manages to meet those expectations, then turn them on their head, is what turns it into a fun, retro romp.
The picture picks up with original hero Danny Ocean deceased, and his kid sister Debbie just released from prison. She’s determined to go straight, too – straight back to her old life of crooked schemes, clever cons and deliciously ill-gotten gains.
But first, she needs her girls.
The best heist movies, going back at least as far as John Huston’s classic “The Asphalt Jungle,” have a steady, three-act structure and “Ocean’s 8” knows the drill. The team is put together. The job is pulled. Then things get, well, complicated.
But each stage here has some surprises.
First, there’s the all-female team, starting with Sandra Bullock as Debbie. The Everywoman to Tom Hanks’ Everyman, Bullock’s always been real, relaxed, relatable. Here, though, she turns the thermostat down a bit on that easy warmth. Cool calculated Debbie is a slick smarty, devious and determined.
And she’s got a great partner in Cate Blanchett as Lou, a tough-as-gel-nails con artist with a fondness for motorcycles – and maybe for Debbie, too. (Are they just burglary buddies or something more? The movie’s reluctance to spell out their relationship feels a bit more like old-fashioned nervousness than trendy ambiguity.)
But if that detail is a little vague, the rest of the characters are fully drawn. There’s Rihanna as a spliff-smoking tech genius and Awkwafina as a thief so sneaky you’ll count your fingers after every handshake. Even bolder, bigger parts go to Anne Hathaway, as a terribly self-involved movie star, and Helena Bonham Carter, as a hysterical haute-couture designer, wrapped in layers of satin and Victorian lace.
That some of these actresses seem to be playing exaggerated versions of their own tabloid personas – and that they’re clearly in on the joke – makes it even funnier.
Once it has its team assembled, of course, a caper movie has to move on to the actual heist. Here, it’s a daring jewel robbery, set during the annual Met Costume Institute Gala. And director Gary Ross (who also co-wrote the script) knows the fun is as much in the countdown as in the crime.
So Ross not only takes his time laying it all out – so we’re aware of what can go wrong, and probably will – he does it with clever style, his split-screens and spy-movie soundtrack giving the film the feel of a mid-`60s romp.
He isn’t the auteur that franchise founder Steven Soderbergh is – primarily a screenwriter, Ross is best known for directing the very different “Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit” and “The Hunger Games” – but he knows how to serve the story without getting distracted by the sideshows.
Except for, perhaps, the costumes. Not only is the story set during Manhattan’s biggest red-carpet moment, but to go undercover our shady ladies have to dress the part, too. Pretty soon the widescreen is crammed with one gorgeous gown after another, in a delicious sequence that’s just as colorful (but, thankfully, not quite as arbitrary) as the fashion show in “The Women.” It’s like an issue of “Vogue” come to life – right down to a cameo by an imperious Anna Wintour – and while it may not advance the plot, it’s a wonderfully guiltless pleasure.
Of course, the third act of a caper movie has to be where things begin to go wrong – or, at least, suddenly take a hard and unexpected turn. It’s usually the toughest twist for these films to pull off, and “Ocean’s Eight” is no exception. Some of what happens at the end is far-fetched, even for this genre; one surprise revelation feels a little unfair. And the whole thing takes just a bit too long to wrap up – like these con artists’ marks, we should be left absolutely breathless by the end.
But those are quibbles in what’s a true warm-weather delight, a sleek chic film about beautiful people pulling shady tricks on even more beautiful people. It’s lightweight (but not mindless), exciting (but never ugly or cynical), and there’s not a car chase or an intergalactic supervillain in sight. And that makes this summer treat about high-stakes grifters about as sure a thing as you can find.