The Bling Ring | Director Sofia Coppola | Score: 5.3
Five films into her career, it’s clear Sofia Coppola is a visionary director. At her best, as in 2003’s excellent Lost in Translation, her visual acuity and knack for musical segue matches seamlessly with her heightened sense of art direction and downplayed, poetic scripts, producing a work that feels excitingly, exactly of a piece.
Her style works best with content that’s equally ethereal — Bill Murray’s dazed, miserable actor in Tokyo; the dreamy stylings of Jeffery Eugenides’ rippling prose set to an Air-heavy soundtrack. Her new film, a fact-based affair about a notorious group of L.A. celeb-addled teens who broke into their heroes’ estates and stole millions in cash, drugs and high-end fashion apparel, begins with a far more sordid — and candidly well covered — premise: Our continued obsession with celeb culture and desire for cheap, reality-show fame has completely overcome our nation’s youth, leaving little but insatiable little sacks of yearning who are drenched in the supreme arrogance that they are, in fact, totally worthy of notice and unlimited media attention.
Rebecca (Katie Chang) a well-to-do student in a high school for wayward, affluent teens, befriends a new kid named Marc (Israel Broussard), in part because he goes along with whatever risky illegal maneuver she has in mind. It starts with breaking into cars and quickly escalates into something larger. In this age of total celeb saturation, it’s common knowledge where anyone famous is at any one time. Rebecca figures out if, say, Paris Hilton is attending an event in Vegas over the weekend, her manse will be wide open and available for pillaging.
Things escalate further when the duo is joined by best friends Nicki (Emma Watson) and Chloe (Claire Julien) on their capers. In rapid order, they start hitting other celeb mansions (typical entreaty: “I want some Chanel!”), including those of Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson and Audrina Patridge, ultimately making off with some $3 million in ill-gotten gains before finally getting snatched by the police.
As a movie, it plays a lot like a magazine article (the original story by Nancy Jo Sales, appeared first in Vanity Fair), all surfaces and youth-culture lamentation (unsurprisingly Facebook plays a large role in the group’s self-representation), which comes off feeling sort of slight — a gaudy premise unable to rise above itself into anything more resonating.
Of course, all of this might well be the point, after all. With the kids’ insane emphasis on fashion, brand names (“Those are Alexander McQueen’s!” one of them squeals, holding up a pair of sunglasses at Paris Hilton’s house) and endless coveting of fame for fame’s sake, what more could there be?
Nicki, whose mother Laurie (Leslie Mann) homeschools her, her younger sister, and Chloe in the sacred rites and rituals of “The Secret,” topping off each lesson with daily doses of Adderall for the trio, believes the whole experience was in order for her to further develop her utterly vapid spiritual life (she calls it an important “learning lesson”), but we are left to find only the most painfully obvious irony in such sentiments.
The sad truth is, as we can see — if you can stomach it — in the course of the short-lived E! reality series that followed Alexis Neiers (Nicki’s real-life counterpart) and her family, if anything, the film slightly tones down her oblivious, preening obnoxiousness. We have reached a saturation point whereby our reality shows regularly vomit up a slice of life so distasteful and heart-sinking, even our fiction can’t adequately offer us a rational perspective.
At moments, Coppola offers glimpses of what might have been. A single long-distance shot outside one of their victim’s hillside mansions enables us to see from afar the scurrying activity of the teens as they make their way systematically through every room in the place with nothing but the sounds of the quiet hills around them — a rustling of wind in tall grass, coyote calls and dogs’ barking in nervous response, the distant chopping of helicopter blades — which makes for an oddly transfixing moment, nature’s utter indifference to such human conceits.
But these are precious few and far between. Far too often Coppola simply gives in to the premise and unwittingly falls into the trap of her subjects’ nearly unimaginable vacuousness. It’s one thing to comment on a societal segment, offering a perspective not readily available to the viewer; it’s entirely another to fully indulge the worst and most cringe-worthy aspects of said segment and offer little else but their exploitation, however welcome it might have come.
Through it all, there is at least one alarming point the film makes perfectly, abundantly clear: There may never have been a generation so coddled and compromised, so miserably incapable of rumination and so out of touch with their own souls. They perpetually confuse self-reflection with self-aggrandizement, as if they were constantly on camera in some reality series’ confessional room, presenting their case for themselves as if any other kind of reaction, beyond something entirely self-serving, would be a complete waste of time.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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