When future historians look back on the discord of the 21st century and search for reasons that explain the barbarism that befell America, they might learn something about it from the movie Ocean’s 8. This feminist heist movie embellishes the resentment of Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), a professional criminal who enlists a squad of women to steal a fabled Cartier necklace during the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Gala fashion event in New York.
Director Gary Ross’s choice of site follows a Sex and the City template; his attempted glamorization of avarice and theft displays the slackened principles of a particular social elite. His celebrity cast of hoodlums (Cate Blanchett, Ann Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson) are on screen to confirm the criminality that is already widely accepted, adding today’s unrepentant hypocrisy.
Historians could trace this back to the Steven Soderbergh–George Clooney Oceans franchise, which rebooted — and ruined — the 1960 Frank Sinatra heist film Ocean’s Eleven, a fantasy in which ethnically diverse WWII veterans indulged crime as a response to post-war social travails.
Ocean’s 8 normalizes crime as a method of selfish achievement, characteristic of American venality.
If future film scholars are not entirely besotted with the idea of escapist nonsense, they might discover that the supercilious feminism in Ocean’s 8 is rooted in Hillary Clinton’s 2007 presidential-campaign ad; that’s where she and Bill jokingly forecast their criminal resemblance to The Sopranos, TV’s celebrated crime family. (Obama memorably told Oprah, “I love The Sopranos.”)
Ocean’s 8 normalizes crime as a method of selfish achievement, characteristic of American venality. Bullock (Debbie Ocean) is presented as the ex-con sibling of Danny Ocean, George Clooney’s gang-leader role in the Soderbergh film. Each of her celebrity-guest crooks announces a personal justification for going rogue — and equates it with being stylish. (However, only pop star Rihanna, in dreads, wears clothes well. Blanchett flaunts a leopard coat but is coiffed like Elsa in Frozen. No surprise, then, that Bonham Carter, always adept at wearing a hat, sports a madman’s fascinator and is the most amusingly eccentric of the bunch.) Debbie’s promise of over $16 million to each moll is truly Hillary-esque. They target the Met Gala as a secular substitute for a spiritual, elevating convocation, now replaced by materialism.
Setting the heist at the Met Gala rather than a Vegas casino coincides with a recent Met event that confused art history with current political rebellion. This year’s Gala, a fundraiser for the Met, was tied to a new exhibition, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Art critic Maureen Mullarkey has brilliantly described how the exhibit denigrated artistic and moral values. Ocean’s 8 proves Mullarkey’s point through Hollywood heroizing and excusing criminality, particularly by women. In essence, it repeats the Gala’s anti-clericism and ratifies the millennium’s moral catastrophe. (Media reports on the Gala showed New York’s Cardinal Dolan greeting George Clooney; and Rihanna herself, co-chair of the event, attended wearing headgear that travestied a bishop’s miter.)
But the cinematic blasphemy in Ocean’s 8 is a particular offense. Ross lacks sufficient visual style to make the heist alluring. Montages of criminal know-how and snazzy fashion don’t come together to sufficiently overwhelm one’s moral objection. Mullarkey admonished the Gala for sacrilegious mockery, citing the museum’s Costume Institute curator, Andrew Bolton, for his specious validation of fashions that “reference the hierarchy and gender distinctions of the Roman Catholic Church through a cast of Fellini-esque religious characters that are immediately identifiable by their dress.”
Bolton implied a connection to the sequence of Fellini’s Roma (1970) in which an ecclesiastical fashion show (designed by the brilliant couturier Danilo Donati) visually represented Fellini’s amusement — and shock — at end-of-the-world decadence. Each of Donati’s outrageous designs pinpointed the modern church’s own unwitting self-satire. But Fellini’s imagination, visual panache, and seriousness are incomparable. Ross’s heist preparations and execution are hackneyed, no better than Soderbergh’s but with similar snide jabs of anti-American cynicism. (Anne Hathaway’s wide-eyed duplicity challenges Bullock’s narrative authority by convincingly portraying the false innocence of an all-American con artist.)
The film’s patronizing nod to diversity — token thieves of assorted ethnic types — are insulting enough to make one nostalgic for the ghetto vulgarity of Set It Off (1996), a black feminist heist film in which Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett belonged to a quartet of inner-city black chicks who committed robbery because of each one’s deprivation. At least that film’s sentimentalizing of crime as self-justifying altruism seemed more sincere than this. The “gendered” cynicism in Ocean’s 8 suggests a banal Hollywood version of Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists.
What the Met demeaned as “Catholic imagination” misjudges the rich ambiguity of artists who dare examine their cultural backgrounds, such as filmmakers who indulge the allure of sin while being conscious of righteousness and salvation. Fellini’s Roma showed how that complexity can arouse wild imagination. Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale brought moral imagination to the sensual and kinetic delirium of the forbidden-fruit robbery scene where Rebecca Romijn and Rie Rasmussen’s mutual seduction gave a tantalizing front to an ultimate social transgression.
Nothing in the bland yet silly Ocean’s 8 is that elegant or goes that deep. The heist genre is a paltry thing unless it can reveal more, like the satirical panorama of class and race in the Coen brothers’ The Ladykillers. But the act of robbery — presented as a collective’s goal, as if based on a political party’s greedy platform — sullies human potential. It subtly reduces aspiration to crime. The idea of fun criminality in Ocean’s 8 is too much like the unrepentant dishonesty of today’s politics — and especially the self-righteousness of Hillary-era feminism — to provide acceptable entertainment.