434. Ocean’s 8

★★★

Danny Ocean is dead. Save for a picture of his face that his sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock) places in a restroom, there are no sudden appearances of the spiffy con-man in “Ocean’s 8,” a film that sounds like a prequel, feels like a reboot, but is actually an off-the-cuff sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s swanky “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy. Save for Ocean’s bathroom mug, only two of the male swindlers from the series appear in “Ocean’s 8,” this entree focusing on a group of fashionable woman fleecers instead.

As to why there needed to be a sequel/reboot of the “Ocean’s” films with only women, Debbie sums it up pretty succinctly when explaining her decision-making to her yellow-haired consigliere Lou (Cate Blanchett): women thieves get noticed less. That phrase feels more true or less true depending how much you think about it, but Debbie’s got a point: there ain’t that many opportunities in Hollywood for women to act as hustlers rather than bombshells. So even if you disagree with “Ocean 8’s” mere existence, you have to acknowledge that its actuality is important, and that it’s a pretty damn fun movie too.

We start with Debbie, holding back fake tears in a parole hearing after her former beau Claude Becker (Richard Armitage) testified against her. Debbie is granted freedom, and less than 24-hours after her release, has already embroiled herself in crimes that what would be identity theft by small-town standards and petty larceny in Manhattan courts. She swindles a department store to get free makeup, books a luxury hotel room in a former guest’s name, and ruminates about criminalhood in a bubble bath glistened by the glow of New York skyscrapers outside, waiting to enact the heist she’s been planning for nearly six years.

Debbie reunites with Lou, who’d you mistake for a tomboy if she weren’t wearing platform shoes, and the two go about recruiting the best and fleeciest for a legendary heist: stealing a $150 million, diamond-encrusted necklace from the Met Gala. Joining Debbie and Lou’s ranks are jewelry designer Amita (Mindy Kaling), tax-troubled fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham Carter), the maestro of the hand swiping arts Constance (Awkwafina), non-Russian computer hacker Nine Ball (Rihanna), and Tammy (Sarah Paulson), a pick-your-own-adventure criminal who has difficulty herself explaining what she’s actually an expert in. Their specific target is an Anne Hathaway-esque celebrity named Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), who will be wearing the coveted necklace at the ball.

At times, “Ocean’s 8” feels like its mirroring “Ocean’s Eleven” plot structure and character development frame for frame, with Debbie, Lou and Tammy acting as obvious surrogates for the Clooney, Pitt and Damon trio. But then there character blends and story disrupts where the movie awkwardly tries to establish its own identity while staying true to its “Ocean’s” origin. Claude seems like chunky mix of Tess and Terry Benedict, the secret object of Debbie’s angry affection that we consistently forget about, while Daphne is originally touted to be this movie’s Terry but revealed as something much less satisfying.

This thorny battle between independence vs. homage is reflected too through “Ocean’s 8” direction. Gary Ross, best known for directing the first “Hunger Games” movie, tries to emulate sleek sophistication and easy cool of Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” trilogy. What Ross achieves, through his confident frame placement and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it action, is commendable enough work on its own. But it’s clear he’s trying to emulate Soderbergh’s masterful eye instead of viewing things with a fresh pair of lens.

Still, “Ocean’s 8” is wonderfully entertaining. It moves at a brisk pace, is pleasing to the eye, has characters who are incomplete but likable, and even though its twists and turns can be spotted a mile away, the journey through those roads are immensely rewarding. Debating whether its an authentic “Ocean’s” flick reduces this movie’s charm, as “Ocean’s 8” is clear proof that imitation truly is the best form of flattery.

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