Is it even possible to louse up a heist movie? The pleasure of the genre is in its nearness to a blueprint: Assemble the team/assemble the cast; follow the planning, execution, and potential unraveling of an intricate burglary; then throw in enough twists, roadblocks, side deals, and double-crosses to keep everybody happy. After that, it’s just a matter of connecting Tab A to Slot B and keeping the thing moving, right?
Actually, wrong. “Ocean’s 8” has all of the above, plus the novelty of an all-female starring cast, and while it hums along smoothly and delivers a reasonably enjoyable two hours at the movies, no one will mistake it for inspired. Certainly not in comparison to the earlier 21st century “Ocean’s” trilogy, a reboot of the 1960 Rat Pack classic, “Ocean’s 11.” A plot detail in the newest installment involves a 3-D printer that turns out Zirconium replicas of diamond baubles, and you won’t find a better metaphor for this movie than that.
What’s right? The cast, glory be: Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett as Debbie and Lou, ringleaders of a plot to rob the biggest bling — a diamond necklace called the Toussaint — at the annual Met Gala in New York City, and all the actresses lined up behind them: Helena Bonham Carter as a frowzy dress designer, Mindy Kaling as a Manhattan diamond district pro, Sarah Paulson as a suburban fence (no, not that kind — the other kind), rapper-comedian Awkwafina as a street-savvy pickpocket, and singing star Rihanna in a tart turn as an all-knowing hacker. (The audience cheered when she turned up; don’t tell anyone, but Ri’s the biggest star here.)
Anne Hathaway ably fights off the Hatha-haters as Daphne Kluger, a dingbat movie star used by Debbie and Lou as an unwitting eighth member of the crew; in a movie where everyone keeps it close to the vest, Hathaway knows to play it brassy and big. The movie’s generous with cameos, as well. Dakota Fanning pops up in a small role, and everyone from Anna Wintour to Serena Williams to a parliament of Kardashians pass through playing themselves. Late in the movie, there’s a lovely montage involving the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them quartet of Marlo Thomas, Dana Ivey, Mary Louise Wilson, and Elizabeth Ashley.
Also right: The clothes — Blanchett wears everything with implacable style even when Lou is dressing down. The general air of heightened glitz and the plot clockworks clickety-clacking away underneath. A playful sense of sisterhood that’s different from — but just as fun as — the usual heist-movie bromance. “I don’t want a him,” Bullock’s Debbie says, rejecting a male candidate for the team. “A him gets noticed and a her gets ignored. I want to be ignored.”
(True, there are men here, but they’re appropriately and amusingly secondary, from the villainous arm-candy gallery owner played by Richard Armitage to James Corden’s insurance investigator, who affably comes and goes in the third act. Lesser lights from the “Ocean’s” universe include Shaobo Qin and Elliott Gould, but George Clooney’s Danny Ocean — Debbie’s brother — is conveniently and not very convincingly dead this go-round.)
What’s not right with “Ocean’s 8”? Everything else, particularly the functional-but-that’s-it direction by Gary Ross and the duff dialogue by Ross and co-writer Olivia Milch. Every heist movie needs banter, but the banter needs snap, crackle, and pop — otherwise known as character — and the talk here is soggy and generic. (“Why do you need to do this?” Lou asks Debbie about the heist. “Because it’s what I’m good at.”) Every now and then, the script gets off a good one — “The ego has landed,” when the gallery owner makes an appearance — but the witty top-spin imparted to the three earlier “Ocean’s” films by director Steven Soderbergh, here given a producing credit, is sorely missed.
In that gap between execution and inspiration, you notice things you shouldn’t: The heaviness of the make-up on certain members of the cast, the missed opportunities in the script (Bullock’s Debbie has a crucial check-list for the robbery she’s been carrying around since prison, but we never get to see it), the way the movie rests on the actors’ established personas (Hathaway excepted) rather than letting them surprise us with idiosyncrasy. The way Bullock’s Debbie is the boss of the job but Blanchett is the Boss of This Movie.
I don’t want to sound too harsh — the movie’s a two-and-three-quarters-star affair if ever there were one — but everyone here is pulling her weight except the man behind the camera. We go to heist films to see the suckers get taken in high style. This one just robs us bland.
Directed by Gary Ross. Written by Ross and Olivia Milch. Starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, megaplexes in Boston and suburbs. 110 minutes. PG-13 (language, drug use, some suggestive content)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.