At one key moment in the new female-driven heist film “Oceans 8,” heist leader Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock as the sister of now-dead George Clooney character Danny Ocean) pumps up her fellow team members by saying, “Don’t do this for you.
Somewhere out there is a little 8-year-old girl, lying awake and dreaming of becoming a criminal. Do it for her.”
The line is cute and funny, to be sure, which are two words that pertain to the film as a whole. Yet in another new heist movie, the much darker-toned “American Animals,” the true-life story of four bumbling male college students who tried and epically failed to steal some of the world’s most valuable books from the library of their Kentucky university, it becomes clear that some fantasies should not cross over into the real world.
“Oceans 8” is a gender-twist reboot of the early-2000s hit trilogy of “Oceans 11” films that brought together George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon to star in a series of comically inventive heists with a backing crew of several other male actors. In the new film, Bullock is joined by Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, Rhianna and YouTube star Awkwafina in a daring plot to steal a $150 million diamond necklace straight off the neck of a comically privileged movie star played by Anne Hathaway.
The heist is to take place at the Met Ball fundraiser for New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where dozens of the most glamorous people in the American entertainment industry gather to glad-hand and admire each other annually. While the first half of the film suffers from slack pacing by co-writer/director Gary Ross (“Dave,” “Seabiscuit”), who takes over directing duties from the original trilogy’s Steven Soderbergh, once the team is assembled and the con is on, this is a very , very fun and funny movie that will keep you guessing until the end.
It also exudes class by not having one noticeable major swear word or act of violence and just a dash of sexiness in the mix, making this a fine film both for families looking for something cool to see together and a smartly inviting date film for teens and adults. And this is one case where creating a femme-centered reboot of a formerly male property pays off in spades, rather than feeling forced at any moment.
In many ways, these factors make this the polar opposite of “American Animals,” which employs a gritty cinema verite approach under the writing and direction of acclaimed documentarian Bart Layton, whose 2012 doc “The Imposter” was a masterpiece of shady surprises. While it’s occasionally funny in a Coen Brothers-esque way, it has enough swearing and sweaty criminal-male tension to merit comparison to the best works of Quentin Tarantino.
“Animals” makes it clear that it is recounting the true story of a Transylvania University robbery that took place in 2004, in which four young men tried to relieve the campus library of some of the rarest books in existence — particularly John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” which is worth an estimated $12 million. The men — actually late-teen boys Spencer (Barry Keoghan), Warren (Evan Peters), Chas (Blake Jenner) and Eric (Jared Abrahamson) — each are seeking for adventure and validation, fearing both being anonymous in a fast-moving world and being trapped in the mundane existence of small-city life in Lexington, Kentucky.
Layton intriguingly establishes that it’s uncertain whether aspiring artist Spencer or the charismatic wildman Warren is the ringleader in the escapade. They goad each other in ways that suggest neither could be a complete human being without the other.
But Layton achieves brilliance with the stylistic conceit of having the real-life robbers, who famously wound up each serving more than seven years in federal prison for their botched misadventure, comment on themselves with the perspective afforded by both penitentiary time and 14 years of regret. Their accounts are interspersed with the intense recreations of the crime itself, which went ridiculously wrong within minutes.
The film’s tone is a marvel, as it could be easy to just laugh at these guys for their boneheaded planning. Instead, the presence of the real men and their real parents and the real librarian caught in the middle of their scheme lends the film a gravitas and sense of regret that is extremely rare in a crime film. These men are still haunted by their mistakes a decade and a half later, both in wondering what made them lose their moral compasses and about what might have been if Spencer had really been able to fence the books and instantly transform their lives into ones of luxury and prestige.
But the most remarkable feat of all in the must-see “Animals,” which deserves Oscar consideration it likely won’t attain, is the fact that it makes viewers care so much about what drove them to be as feckless as they were reckless, even as it is clear from the get-go that they didn’t succeed and everyone survived. These guys might not have stolen the books they dreamed of, but they will nab your interest.
“Ocean’s 8” GRADE: B
“American Animals” GRADE: A