What 'Ocean's 8' Is Missing

'Ocean's 8' is a feminist, glamorous (and flawed) ode to theft

Sandra Bullock, left, and Cate Blanchett in a scene from "Ocean's 8."
Barry Wetcher/AP

Forty years ago, two female researchers coined the term “impostor syndrome” to describe the feeling shared by many women that they weren’t good enough at their jobs, and that their true nature was liable to be exposed at any moment. The syndrome doesn’t stem from a lack of talent or ability, but from low self confidence. Fifteen years later, researchers from Cornell University demonstrated that while most men tend to think that they are more successful than they really are – women underrate themselves. For example, the researchers had the students take a test and afterward guess what grade they had received, from 1 to 10. On average, the women estimated that their grade was 5.8, while the men rated themselves 7.1. The actual result was almost identical for both groups: around 7.

The “Ocean’s” films, including the new “Ocean’s 8,” starring women, deals first of all with ordinary people who are convinced that they can put one over on the bigshots. Inflated self confidence, but with a happy end. And who could be more suited to play cool, smooth criminals than Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in the ‘60s, and George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the ‘00s.

The last trio of films, directed by Steven Soderbergh, restored style and nonchalance to roguish behavior with complex, sophisticated and hyper-technological heists. More than anything else, they had praise for con men – people with self confidence. This is a certain type of roguishness that requires mainly acting ability: Fake it till you make it. At a time when Hollywood decision-makers have already internalized the fact that catering to women is financially worthwhile (see “Wonder Woman”), the gender reversal of the franchise was almost inevitable.

Here the female stars of “Ocean’s 8” serve as interesting role models, and not only because of the ease with which they fulfill a simple fantasy. They take what they want in a natural and relaxed manner. Although that’s what the heroes of all the films in the series do, the cast of women places everything in a new light. Although we’ve seen plenty of complex teams who commit sophisticated crimes in movies, it’s never before been done with women only. The effect is undeniable.

Of course you have to set aside the morality police, because this time too, “Ocean’s” is an ode to theft; but the style compensates for that most of the time. The plot starts out with a tribute to founding father Soderbergh, when we meet Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), the sister of the hero of the previous trilogy, Danny Ocean (George Clooney), seated before the prison parole committee.

A heartrending and totally false monologue gets her an early release, and she leaves prison in the evening gown with which she entered. From there she goes on to commit a wonderful sting in a department store when she demands a refund for an item she has just shoplifted, and gets angry that they’re even asking her whether she has a negligible item such as a receipt. The first lesson: Behave like a person of privilege who is entitled to everything, and you’ll be granted privileges, because you’re entitled to everything.

Like her brother, who doesn’t appear in the film, Debbie Ocean doesn’t waste a moment before carrying out a plot she dreamed up during her five years behind bars – robbing a diamond necklace at a gala sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, probably the most glittering and exclusive event in the United States today.

As befits the franchise, the first third of the film is about assembling the team, and as in the case of Debbie, here too there’s a certain mirror image of the male trilogy. Instead of Brad Pitt as the senior partner, we get Cate Blanchett; Rihanna as a super-hacker; Helena Bonham Carter as a dress designer to the stars; Mindy Kaling (“The Office,” “The Mindy Project”) as an embittered diamond merchant; rapper Awkwafina as a street hustler and pickpocket; Sarah Paulson (“An American Horror Story”) as a former thief who has become a bored housewife; and the eighth woman isn’t even on the team, she’s a Hollywood star played by Anne Hathaway, who without her knowledge was chosen to wear a diamond necklace worth $150 million. The pattern continues when they set out to execute the heist, and afterward we get explanations of what we actually didn’t see while we were watching it.

The “Ocean’s” formula strikes for the fifth time, and as usual it’s glamorous but lacking in content. There isn’t really any plot to discuss – they plan a robbery and then execute it – nor are there really any characters. We don’t know anything about Danny Ocean even after the three previous films. There’s no pretense of character development, because the heist is everything and the characters aren’t autonomous, they exist only as part of the whole, like moving parts in a ticking clock.

When you lower your expectations, you can enjoy the wonderful acting of several of the most impressive actors on the big and small screen. Bullock, with her light touch, is a perfect successor to Clooney, and Blanchett is excellent as a loyal and mysterious deputy. As in previous “Ocean’s” films, which feature too many stars, Rihanna, Kaling and Awkwafina receive the award for unfulfilled potential, because they don’t have enough screen time to shine. On the other hand, Hathaway, who plays an egocentric star, although she occasionally lapses into cliché, is the most entertaining character in the film.

Anne Hathaway, left, and Helena Bonham Carter in a scene from "Ocean's 8."
Barry Wetcher/AP

When the robbery is the main thing and the characters revolve solely around it, the decision to transfer the location in the women’s version from Las Vegas to the Met is excellent. If Vegas serves as a worthy setting for power games among strong men, the overdone gala in New York is a suitable alternative.

The magnificent museum contains important and expensive items, but for the guests they’re nothing more than a setting for a trendy party in which everyone concentrates on stardust and crazy outfits. They don’t even notice that behind Kim Kardashian there’s a 3,500-year-old sphinx, or the painting “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David. Even the item being stolen doesn’t interest the heroines for its monetary value, but mainly for demonstrating superiority to those in power by being capable of putting one over on them.

Missing the bad guy

The main problem in the film, and not a minor one, is actually in the department of director-scriptwriter Gary Ross and his co-writer Olivia Milch. Soderbergh was born to create films like “Ocean’s”, which are almost all form and no content, glamorous, lightweight and precise in all the small details – from the planning of the sting to the fast pace and the stylized design.

Ross has extensive experience as the scriptwriter of “Big” and “Dave” among other films, and as the director of “Pleasantville” and “The Hunger Games,” and in most of his films he has proven his ability to skillfully make use of existing formulas. But just when he tries to adhere to Soderbergh’s formula, he undermines the film due to his attempt to adapt the new gang to the men’s version.

Another significant missed opportunity is related to the bad guys, who were excellent in the previous films. Andy Garcia, Vincent Cassell and Al Pacino played wealthy, aggressive and arrogant men, and it was a pleasure to watch their downfall. This time there’s no real “bad guy,” but only the technical challenge of outsmarting the security precautions, along with a side plot of revenge against a dubious ex played by Richard Armitage.

Still, “Ocean’s 8” is a cultural event more than a film, and is at the heart of the present discussion of the representation of women. Even the correct and uninspired directing doesn’t prevent Bullock, Blanchett and Hathaway from providing two light and elegant hours. But like fast food, they don’t leave any impression behind, except for the image of a collection of sophisticated women who don’t need men.

The Bechdel Test – which evaluates whether a film discriminates against women, including by examining whether there is a scene in the film in which two women talk about a subject other than men – is so successful that it becomes reversed, and it’s hard to find two men talking between themselves. It’s hard to downplay the cultural significance of the film at the present moment, and that’s refreshing to see, especially when so many excellent actresses share one screen.