To motivate myself enough to start writing this piece, I put on “Ocean’s 11.”
Not that it was my first choice. Between us, I originally sought out “The Godfather” — but then I discovered Netflix Canada had taken it away, so I went with “Ocean’s” instead. To be clear, I in no way, shape, or form want to be Michael Corleone. But the man’s work ethic is something I’m jealous of, and Danny Ocean’s comes pretty close. And for better or worse, watching both of these masterminds at work gets me fired up — because that’s what good heist movies do.
I’d like to be someone whose productivity doesn’t hinge on living vicariously through fictional criminals, but the success of movies and TV series that revolve around them has led me to believe it’s fine. Throughout the 2000s, we all congregated around Walter White and Tony Soprano, defining and re-defining terms like “anti-hero” to water down the fact that we were, against our better judgment, rooting for them. From there, we went on to debate the ethics of characters like Star Wars’ Kylo Ren, Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, and even Scandal’s Olivia Pope to remind ourselves that most of us don’t fall into ethical categories of black or white, but, far more often, into shades of grey. True to form, this is how I plan to justify over-romanticizing “Ocean’s 8” (out this weekend) in the same way I embraced its 2001-era predecessor. Because sure, it may be illegal to rob the Met or hit a casino, but goddamn: It sure takes a lot of work ethic and effort to do it.
Stories about people who work hard are great. But stories about people who work hard, together, to achieve a common goal that none of us could emulate alone unless we were genius millionaires (or had financial backing) are even better. “Ocean’s 11” may be a good film because of its characters, dialogue, and general execution, but it’d be heartbreakingly empty and pointless without the collective dynamic of its leads. Imagine two hours of George Clooney, by himself, just, like, trying to charm Julia Roberts while simultaneously trying to rob one of the biggest casinos in the world. It would be startling, it’d be pathetic — and it’d be a lesson in how not to live one’s life. It wouldn’t be a tale about pulling off something cool with a bunch of like-minds, it’d be a movie about some dude who was completely delusional and super weird.
Instead, “Ocean’s 11” — and good, decent, heist films like it — give us the opportunity to be delusional and weird. We don’t watch these movies and think about the real-life consequences of being caught, or that the only place we would ever see a cast of characters so exciting, funny, and colorful come together is on-screen. Nor do we think about how characters like Tom Hanks’ FBI agent in “Catch Me If You Can” are the real heroes, and that we should be actively rooting against Leonardo DiCaprio. (As if I would, but I hear you’re supposed to.) Instead, we’re given a chance to watch the art of outsmarting in action, and to take the side of the “bad” guys/gals. And when a character is likeable, and the outsmarting is done well, it’s impossible not to cheer for them and to root against whoever’s trying to ruin everything.
Which isn’t to say anybody here wants to knock over a casino or to snag a bunch of diamonds that don’t belong to us. (So don’t start spreading anything about me.) Instead, these movies, these stories, and these characters offer a buffet of choices from which to inspire one’s self. I don’t romanticize Rusty in “Ocean’s” or Michael Corleone because I want to do what they do — I romanticize the traits they exhibit that I can apply to my own life, hopefully without destroying it in the process. Ambition, intelligence, drive, work ethic — all of these are awesome things. The key is to use them without ruining somebody else’s life (within reason) or, you know, doing something very illegal and going to jail.
What I like in these heroes (or villains, whatever) are things I’ve yet to fully embrace in myself
Plus, there’s that element of fun to it all. (Something I think we’ve all become unfamiliar with, but let’s give it a whirl for a couple of hours.) Because who isn’t going to see “Ocean’s 8” and not wish we were any of its leads? Who isn’t going to sit there, mentally tallying the pals they’d join forces with to pull off a job that’s impossible outside of a scripted film or show? Who isn’t going to leave the theater asking, “What would Eight Ball do?” or hoping they have a fraction of the confidence of Cate Blanchett asking Sandra Bullock why she’s doing one last job? Who isn’t going to feel inspired in some strange, inexplicable way, and then search maniacally for a place in which they can assert this new dose of ambition? Who isn’t going to wonder if they can do a version of this remarkable thing in their own lives?
Which gets at the root of why heist movies are so damn inspirational: I may be sitting on my couch watching 2001-era Brad Pitt and Carl Reiner and writing, but if this beautiful, perfect, motley crew can coordinate long enough to screw over Andy Garcia, then I know I can focus long enough to deliver something that’s relatively readable.
Because what I like in these heroes (or villains, whatever) are things I’ve yet to fully embrace in myself. Heist movies, then, are a much-needed reminder that it’s OK to be a little calculating, or to dream big, or not to cower in the wake of confrontation. It’s OK to reassure myself that I’m allowed to be colorful while existing in the realm of grey, and to find friends that bring out the best in me instead of those I can’t plan and plot with.
… Again, within reason. For the record, I don’t want any of us to rob anything. I just want us to feel inspired enough to know that we could if we really wanted to.
Until the next film, at least.
Anne T. Donahue is a writer and person from Cambridge, Ontario. Her first book, “Nobody Cares,” will be out in September 2018.