Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring is the second movie this year to cast a jaundiced eye in the direction of contemporary teenage culture. In March, Harmony Korine transformed Spring Break into a tenth circle of Hell in Spring Breakers and now Coppola presents the streets and nightclubs of Los Angeles as being overrun with roving packs of consumption-addicted high-schoolers, with too much money and not enough sense of responsibility. In a way, The Bling Ring is the closest thing the director has ever made to a horror movie, as these characters are as predatory and blind to the suffering of others as any cinematic serial killer.
Coppola's critics have often accused her (incorrectly, as far as I'm concerned) of allowing her own privileged upbringing as the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola to seep into her movies, but there's no mistaking the tut-tutting that pervades The Bling Ring. Based on a true crime story that was previously outlined in a popular Vanity Fair feature story, the film embeds us inside a pack of five well-off L.A. teenagers, including Rebecca (Katie Chang), Marc (Israel Broussard), Nicki (Emma Watson), Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Chloe (Claire Julien). Don't worry if you can't keep those names straight, because the characters' respective personalities quite deliberately blend together, to the point where the group becomes a single organism of greed and materialism. The fun begins when ringleader Rebecca casually mentions to new kid in school Marc that they pay a visit to the house of one of his friends and doesn't miss a beat when he replies that they're out of town, suggesting that they just... walk in. Her attitude is understandable in a warped way; since she's pretty much able to go anywhere she wants anyway -- high-end stores, nightclubs, you name it - without asking permission from her mostly absent parents or any other authority figure, why should someone else's home be any different? And hey, if you happen to pick up a small souvenir or two while you're there, no harm no foul. It's not like anyone who already has so much will miss it.
It's not long before Rebecca and Marc have extrapolated this idea from "It's okay to go into a friend's house when they're not there" to "It's okay to go into a celebrity's house when they're not there." (The film subtly makes the connection that tabloid culture has allowed these kids to think of celebrities as their friends, a point driven home in the way that Marc and Rebecca frequently refer to their various targets on a first-name basis.) Starting with Paris Hilton's lavish mansion, the duo -- along with the three other pals they eventually invite along -- pay visits to homes belonging to Rachel Bilson, Megan Fox and Adriana Lima and help themselves to everything from diamond necklaces to pairs of Louboutin shoes. It's a sign of just how insulated the kids are -- or maybe how myopic our own culture is -- that they're able to hide in plain sight for so long, flaunting their new apparel in public without anyone batting an eye. Even after the police are finally clued in to what's going on, Rebecca, Marc and the rest of ring don't believe they've done anything wrong. After all, if they had, someone would have told them so... right?
The Bling Ring once again demonstrates that Coppola is a master of her particular aesthetic, a dreamy, almost free-associative approach to cinematic storytelling that occupies a space between fantasy and reality. The movie drifts casually along from moment to moment, not driven by external plot machinations, but rather the whims of the characters. It's also filled with some beautiful imagery, from the otherworldly nightclub scenes to my favorite shot in the movie, an extended take in which the camera is positioned on a hillside overlooking one of the homes Rebecca and Marc are about to rob. As the duo enters the split-level, window-filled house, Coppola refrains from cutting away to another angle, instead filming the entire robbery from that fixed perspective -- the only camera movement being a slow zoom-in. It's a terrific bit of filmmaking, more stylish and creative that practically any shot in either of this week's would-be blockbusters, Man of Steel and This is the End.
Unfortunately, style is pretty much all The Bling Ring has going for it in the end. In her past films, Coppola has been able to supplement her formidable formal skill with deeply felt portraits of very specific character types be they cocooned movie stars (Lost in Translation), impressionable daughters (Somewhere) or 18th century French princesses (Marie Antoinette). Working closely with her actors, Coppola ensured that the audience would understand and respect where the characters were coming from, even if we didn't necessarily "like" them. This is the first time where the director has allowed herself to be so openly contemptuous of the people in her own movie and that judgmental air suffocates The Bling Ring. There's never a chance for us to form our own impressions of Rebecca, Marc et al. because Coppola has made up our mind for us and for the actors as well, who successfully sustain the one note that their director wants them to hit -- over-the-top narcissism. Since we know everything there is to know (or, at least, all that Coppola wants to tell us) about these characters and the world they inhabit within the first fifteen minutes, there's nothing left to learn over the course of the next 75, resulting in lots of (beautifully filmed) vamping and repetition. For a director whose work is typically distinguished by its intelligence and subtlety, The Bling Ring is awfully shallow and sour.
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