The difference between an “authentic” transaction, one through which class ascension is “earned,” and the Robin Hooding of drugged rich Wall Street types is, in the opinion of strippers Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and Destiny (Constance Wu), minute. For these Hustlers, it’s an exchange of money either way, cash that’s been stained by an implicit history of income and racial inequality. They aren’t merely getting theirs, but blurring the boundaries between performance and authenticity in the realms of sex and money, which aren’t that different anyway. “Doesn’t money make you horny?” Ramona asks as she passes new and naive Destiny.
The women of Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers aren’t the only recent examples of cinematic career criminals preoccupied with the space between what’s real and what’s not. So, too, are the ladies of Ocean’s Eight, a 2018 spin-off of sorts from Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven. The movie is a fake. It is hardly coy about that fact; after all, heist movies and films about con people are fixated on the lines separating the actual and the artificial. Following Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the late Danny Ocean (George Clooney), and her lady rat pack of designers, fakers, crooks and criminals—all after a $150 million Cartier necklace that is to hang off the neck of Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway, playing a parodic version of herself) on the night of the Met Gala (always the first Monday in May)—Ocean’s Eight asks its characters to discern what’s fake and what’s not. Debbie knows that the American Dream is all about making money off of both.
Deep in the pre-production, as it were, of a heist, one of the Eight, Tammy (Sarah Paulson), creates a digital scan of said priceless Cartier necklace, a replica of which is then made from cubic zirconia. To the untrained eye, it looks just as good as the original, and good enough to swap with the “real” one that will be draped around the famous, kind of dimwitted and neurotic actress Kluger. To the trained eye, the duplicate is obvious in its inauthenticity—and so is the film in which it appears. Ocean’s Eight challenges the audience to question what we understand as “real” and as “fake”, as well as to what degree the two overlap. What are the gendered implications in that challenge, or how does understanding the difference between the two impact the way we approach any art? Does any of that make a genuine difference?
What director Gary Ross has under his belt, prior to his dive into the Ocean’s series, includes a film like Pleasantville, where artifice and real life converge until the line between them is effectively erased. In that film, Ross’s directorial debut, David (Tobey Maguire) and his angsty sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) get sucked into a ’50s-era, Father Knows Best-esque sitcom, black and white and regressive all over. Their presence disrupts the simple, palatable-for-a-mass audience life, and Pleasantville starts showing its colors as more people transgress social norms.
Still, these transgressions, and the changes catalyzed by them, exist within the context of an artificial world that’s been scripted, even after being derailed. Habits may change, but sitcom tropes are still a watered-down version of the self-fulfilling archetypical routines we unknowingly repeat. The expansion of the open minds of Pleasantville was inevitable; popular culture is a fragmented reflection of the landscape that created it.
That’s how Ocean’s Eight functions: Fakeness allows it to transcend that designation so that it becomes as real, if not more real, than its original. Whatever Ross’s accomplishments are, he can only copy some of Soderbergh’s signature moves: split screens, the camera glides, extreme zooms, transition wipes pushed by the F train, kaleidoscopic diamonds, all tackily done. However inclined to imitate Soderbergh’s aesthetics the film may be, Ross’s Ocean’s takes the most pleasure in its outright inability to reproduce Soderbergh. It’s not that the film is lazy, but that it is aware that the attempt of duplication would be a fool’s errand.
In fact, Ocean’s Eight received a lukewarm reception upon its early summer release, critics disappointed with the ways in which it failed to measure up to Soderbergh’s films. But wasn’t that (somewhat) the point? No genuine duplication, it is an imitation and a critique, not unlike how Ocean’s Twelve was self-reflexive as a work of begrudging franchising. These elements make the films more intriguing. There is parallelism in how Debbie picks her team. There is both ribbing and celebration of pageantry. Womanhood and femininity are placed in exhibition (in such a ridiculously named, royalty focused exhibit in the film called “The Scepter and the Sword”, another piece of fakeness) as both ironic and containing political implications.
The characters, too, attempt to embody a different kind of artifice—namely: “women who belong at the Met Gala”—as they waltz their way down the red carpet in a scene whose sham quality is plainly obvious. There’s a noted duality, too, to why they’re there. Debbie mentions that “women aren’t noticed” when she objects to a man on the team, which is, in the context of this event, both true and false. On the one hand, women in elegant, ostentatious, Wintour-approved garments are there to be seen, are as crucial to the exhibition on display as any artifact within the Met’s walls. On the other hand, there’s such an onslaught of (Wintour-invited) attendees (around 600 or 700), that it’s actually fairly easy to get lost in the mix. Debbie’s gang prunes to be presentational so they can, ironically, go unnoticed. In front of the flashbulbs, they sell their audience on aspirational femininity, a most powerful form of cultural capital, and then fleece us once again.
Invisible is what Tammy has been for an unnamed number of years, playing the part of a housewife in the suburbs. Debbie mimicked contrition to get out of jail on parole. Amita (Mindy Kaling) makes her living (with her parents) detecting the quality and authenticity of a diamond. The relic of a designer Rose (Helena Bonham Carter) has been playing a copy of a more successful version of herself, unsuccessfully, for years. Every member of Debbie’s crew is obsessed, explicitly and implicitly, with what the “real thing” is—how to fake it and commodify it.
Anne Hathaway playing herself is a kind of con, the reproduction of her persona no less an original thing than the film itself. Her unique performance even parodies critical slights like “the actor was just playing a version of themselves.” In essence, Anne Hathaway is playing a “copy” of herself, just uncanny enough to be discernible as “not real.”
But “not real” never mattered here. Calling Ocean’s Eight the cubic zirconia of Ocean’s movies is acknowledging its greatest feat: making a copy that still makes money. The film grossed $297.7 million worldwide, a delightful “scam” if there ever was one. Scamming is always about power—sometimes to maintain it, sometimes to reclaim it. Tangling the genuine and the counterfeit so that neither is crystal clear is a way to reframe and restructure understandings of power. In Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, Juliette Binoche opines, “After we’ve seen so many copies of something over so many years, we’re not all experts who can stand before an original and understand it. It takes our breath away. Therefore, without the existence of copies, we wouldn’t understand originals.” And without the copies, we wouldn’t understand that the American Dream sparkles like cubic zirconia.