How Sandra Bullock Leads Her 'Ocean's 8' Ensemble

Ocean's 8 Still Sandra Bullock - Publicity - H 2018
Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros.
Like George Clooney's Danny Ocean, Bullock's Debbie exudes the kind of calm her team needs.

It’s been nearly five years since Sandra Bullock starred in a major blockbuster; though her voice could be heard in the 2015 animated film Minions, the actress’ last big film was the intense science-fiction hit Gravity. In that pic, she co-starred with George Clooney, both playing astronauts trying to make their way back to Earth after a space-station disaster. It’s almost fitting that Bullock’s big box-office return is in playing Clooney’s sister, even if they don’t share screen time. As the lead of Ocean’s 8, Bullock takes over as the leader of a criminal gang, suggesting that her natural charm hasn’t diminished in her time away from the big screen, even if the overall film isn’t always successful.

Bullock’s Debbie Ocean has a chip on her shoulder from the start, one that was never as present with Clloney's Danny Ocean in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy from the 2000s. Part of it relates to her circumstances — like Danny, Debbie starts out the film being released from jail on parole, but the reasons why she landed in prison have driven her to concoct a scheme in which she and a handful of other women will steal a precious diamond necklace from New York’s Met Gala. Part of that frustration is simply due to Debbie being a woman; as she notes to her cohorts (played by, among others, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter and Rihanna), being women means being ignored, which may come in handy considering what they’re trying to pull.

Bullock’s best scene is one of her earliest, wherein the screenplay (by Olivia Milch and director Gary Ross) establishes Debbie’s bona fides as a con artist. As Debbie notes to the outgoing prison guard, she has all of $45 to her name; to get back on her feet, she’ll have to steal. The ways in which Debbie cons her way into high-end makeup and perfume, as well as a deluxe New York suite for a night, don’t require a lot of fancy trickery. All she does is expertly play the part of a slightly snobby socialite to store employees and hotel desk clerks, without breaking a sweat or being treated suspiciously. This scene is especially key, because once Debbie recruits her old friend Lou (Blanchett) and the rest of the criminals, she just becomes one piece of the larger heist. Even more so than Ocean’s Eleven or its sequels, Ocean’s 8 feels very much like an ensemble story; Bullock may be one of the film’s biggest names, but Debbie is a deliberately non-flashy role.

Bullock plays something close to a straight-man character as Debbie; with the role, she’s able to display the same kind of unforced, easygoing charm that has stayed with her throughout serious roles as well as genre fare such as Gravity and even her breakout role in the 1994 action pic Speed. Debbie, like her brother Danny, seems fairly unflappable no matter what obstacles arise to a successful heist. Even once it becomes clear that Debbie is really trying to steal the diamond necklace as a way to frame her ex-boyfriend, and everyone around her encourages her to let go of her frustration, she doesn’t exactly lose her temper. The most baffled Debbie ever seems is when she interacts with Nine-Ball (Rihanna), the group’s young, hipper-than-thou hacker. Otherwise, Bullock exudes the same kind of calm that’s present in many of the lead performances, especially Clooney’s, in the original Ocean’s trilogy.

Whatever other flaws Ocean’s 8 may have, the way that Bullock gets to connect with her female co-stars amounts to the story’s most charming element. Her chemistry with the other actors is such that when she’s offscreen for a time (often so we can see the other criminals get their parts of the heist in place), it’s not only noticeable but a little disappointing. The only true stumble with Debbie is in her connection with that devious ex (Richard Armitage), a relationship that feels underwritten in part because Armitage and Bullock spend so little time onscreen together. The revenge would be sweeter if it felt like his character truly deserved it, even if we accept Bullock as a woman scorned.

Though Ocean’s 8 isn’t as good as any of the pics in the original trilogy, it’s a welcome return to the big screen for Bullock. She has reached a point in her career where she chooses her roles with care; before Gravity, she’d only co-starred in a handful of films over the previous five years, including her Oscar-winning turn in The Blind Side. Ocean’s 8 is Bullock’s first true franchise film in decades (unless we’re all comfortable forgetting that Speed 2: Cruise Control ever happened), and it suggests that her decision to be more selective in which projects she picks can pay off in dividends.