The Bling Ring (2013)

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Sympathy for the vapid

The Bling Ring concerns a small group of blindingly superficial, morally clueless SoCal highschoolers in love with fame and fashion. Middle class girls and a boy, they fall into the habit of burglarizing residences of Hollywood celebrities just as shallow as they are such as Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, whose luxurious lifestyle they embrace vicariously by stealing its appurtenances. They savour the beauty of this “stuff.” Their thefts are a lark and a homage. In their minds fame implies relinquishing privacy and eventually sharing property rights. This logic seems to gibe with the worlds of Facebook, global surveillance and celebrity chic. With all her activities common knowledge, these kids seem to think, why should Paris Hilton’s wholesale-purchased designer shoes be hers alone? And these irresponsible young famous people maintain lousy security at their residences. They leave the key under the mat, or sliding doors open. Google lists their addresses and blogs reveal when they’re going to be away.

The film is based on a story from Vanity Fair by Nancy Jo Sales and was directed by Sofia Coppola. In a sense it’s the culmination of an oeuvre consistently focused on the young, the rich, the narcissistic and the cut-off-from-reality. This time Sofia gets at the hard down-and-dirty quintessence of her subject. But while well executed in physical terms, convincingly showing the glamorous Hollywood houses and their easy-to-steal treasures, and though it’s bright and pretty, the last film, it happens, shot by the late cinematographer Harris Savides, The Bling Ring also turns out to be as vapid as its culprits and unseen victims. It’s destined to stand out as one of the year’s most annoying and empty films.

But also one hard to get out of your head. Sofia may irritate but she does have style and however feather-light the theme, her ill-judged dedication to it is complete.

Character development is understandably thin. So is plot, with little action besides the repeated break-ins, which lax security makes so easy they’re not interesting to watch as crimes. There is not even much tension or fear of capture. Over and over they do it, then get high and party posing at clubs in the stolen duds, shooting themselves with their phones and posting the shots on the Internet. Since this goes on and on, eventually Coppola resorts to montage. They want to live like Lindsey Lohan; be fashion style setters; have a show of their own. Instead they settle for fantasy, till they’re caught. Occasionally one of them is heard explaining this. This film lacks the Antonioni-esque intonations of Coppola’s last film about a celebrity’s neglected child, Somewhere, and despite its bright prettiness, falls into film convention both visually and structurally. When one thinks of the darkly witty high school movies of the Eighties like Heathers or the emotional honesty of S.E. Hinton’s stories (the best of whose film adaptations were directed by Sofia’s father), one wonders where the bite and wit went. Did they evaporate into cyberspace? (But Whit Stillman, happily oblivious to these times, gave us smart, articulate girls last year in Damsels in Distress.)

The Bling Ring’s story, such as it is, revolves around Marc (Israel Broussrd) a newcomer to a high school for rejects, and Rebecca (Katie Chang), a girl who befriends him there. Though tall and cherubically pretty, Marc, as he repeatedly explains to the camera, never feels he’s quite good looking or “A-List” enough. And so he clings to “Becca’s” friendship and leadership. It’s she who leads him to start invading the celebrity houses, with the other girls like Nikki and her virtual siser Sam (Taissa Farmiga) joining later, as well as Chloe (Claire Julien). Several of these others are shown in their blandly idiotic home life, where a a slim, chicly young-looking mother provides them with “home schooling” that consists of inane religiously uplifting peptalks. Nikki is played by Emma Watson, of the Harry Potter films, her metamorphosis into an airheaded Valley Girl deftly effected, though this seems as pointless an accomplishment as Sofia Coppola’s achieved sympathy for adolescent larceny.

There is a touch of gender byplay in the contrast between the timid Marc, always the nervous one during the breakins, and the ballsier girls. Only mild hints are offered that Marc is gay, as if his penchant for trying on women’s luxury shoes and posing in mirrors weren’t giveaways. His timidity gives him a touch of humanity, even of moral compunction, though in the end the court ranks him as a ringleader along with Nikki, even though it’s she who started it all and later flees to another state with stolen goods.

Marc’s uncertainty is pitiable; one element that parallels more solid coming-of-age dramas. There’s a vivid black and white sequence of him getting high and posing in the mirror, finally seeming to grasp at a fleeting moment of substance-induced happiness. Broussard is real in this role. So are the various not very clearly differentiated girls at their Valley Girl exclamations, though uttering them hardly seems an acting challenge. These young people seem like minor characters in their own stories. So it is not surprising that when Nikki is interviewed by the Vanity Fair lady, her mother Laurie keeps taking over. As Laurie, Judd Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann adds notes of satire and conscious humour the film otherwise lacks.

Armond White calls this movie “dud of the week,” but thinks of Sofia’s various “poor-little-rich-girl” movies this finally is an interesting one because it gets closest to the bone and is most worthy of our attention. He points out there were affectless and dimwitted criminals in Fifties American movies too; the difference is they were blue collar misfits while these are “socially advantaged whites of the Hollywood suburbs.” Shoplifting is the crime of the privileged and the repeated trips to the house of Paris Hilton (her actual house being used in the film) are, for these larcenous teenagers, like private shoplifting invasions of Henri Bendel or Bergdorf’s. And they do appreciate the stuff they steal like connoisseurs. The girls, and Marc too, recognize each designer’s work on sight; instantly recognize Louboutin shoes or Alexander McQueen sunglasses.

The ideas about fame and relinquished ownership that this film shows in its young criminals may provide better material for a Vanity Fair piece than for a feature film. The adult male crime saga Pain & Gain, which has too much plot, also came from a magazine article. If you compare the two movies you see Coppola’s lack of penetration into her little crooks’ lives was partly a wise choice. It at least avoids the chaos of the other movie. But both movies lack a point of view, and Coppola’s thinness doesn’t seem like artistic complexity this time. The Bling Ring has all the substance of a PBS documentary — or maybe just an ironic postscript to “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” by one of their own, a privileged groupie.

DIRECTOR: SOFIA COPPOLA
WRITER: NANCY JO SALES, SOFIA COPPOLA
STARS: KATIE CHANG, ISRAEL BROUSSARD, EMMA WATSON, CLAIRE JULIEN, TAISSA AFARMIGA, LESLIE MANN
RUNTIME: 90 MINS
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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