To paraphrase Pauline Kael: it was a wonderful afternoon little Sofia spent on the floor of her father’s editing room, and she’s never let us forget it. Despite the critics endlessly accusing her of piggybacking on the cache of her family name, Sofia Coppola relentlessly keeps making movies, trying to prove that she deserves to be Hollywood royalty not just by inheritance but by merit. As a fan of just about everything she’s done (the relative misstep of “Somewhere” excepted), I’ve never personally needed much convincing, but Coppola’s predilection towards the existential angst of the rich and famous hasn’t helped dispel the myth that she is spoiled and out of touch.
With any luck, “The Bling Ring” will prove once and for all that Coppola is in on the joke. While her focus remains on celebrity culture and modern alienation, the director has slyly turned the spotlight to the periphery: the wannabes on the outside looking in. She’s heard the critics and responded in her own fashion: if you don’t want her to make movies about Bill Murray and Kirsten Dunst anymore, she’ll just turn it around and make a movie about you.
At first it’s easy to distance yourself from the protagonists of “The Bling Ring,” a group of vapid, fame- and fashion-obsessed teenagers that fulfill all your worst stereotypes of upper-class LA suburbia. More concerned with clubbing than college, they seem to embody the most dire outcome of the quick-fame era. Attention and wealth is not earned but entitled; personality is washed away by a combination of medication and assimilation. Some of the funniest (and most overtly satirical) parts of the film revolve around a bizarre family unit of Nicki (Emma Watson), her new-age mother (Leslie Mann) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga), her pseudo-adopted sister; every scene with this wickedly oblivious cohort is only a few steps shy of “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.”
Smartly though, this trio is relegated to the B-plot, with the main focus placed firmly on the more empathetic Marc (Israel Broussard). Arriving at a new school, this somewhat shy and unfocused young man quickly falls under the wing of Rebecca (Katie Chang), an assertive queen bee type who appreciates Marc’s fashion advice and easygoing demeanor. Under Rebecca’s influence, Marc starts ditching classes, then taking cash from unlocked cars, until almost imperceptibly they are suddenly breaking into Paris Hilton’s excessively lavish mansion in the Hollywood Hills.
The transition for Marc, Rebecca and their gang from insipid duckface Tweeters to criminal conspirators is so natural that you never for a moment question that it could happen – which, by the by, it did. “The Bling Ring” is based on true events from 2009, when a group of high schoolers, using nothing but Google and a few hoodies, tracked down the homes of celebrities including Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom, and successfully stole thousands of dollars worth of property, mostly clothing. Their choice of coveted objects is telling: the intent was clearly never to damage the targeted celebrity (indeed, considering the massive wardrobes in question, it sometimes took weeks before the victims even noticed anything was missing). These were just kids who looked at the covers of tabloids and didn’t understand why they couldn’t, or shouldn’t, look just like those people.
As the natural outsider constantly seeking inclusion, Marc is a perfect audience surrogate. He goes along with Rebecca’s increasingly outrageous schemes for the same reason he befriended her in the first place: the fierce desire to be part of the cool crowd. High school cliques never really go away, they just get blown up to exaggerated proportions in supermarket check-out aisles and reality TV. At some point, everyone has been tempted by the glamor and luxury of celebrity, no matter how much we objectively bemoan the emptiness of such a lifestyle. Blast Coppola for only making movies about rich people if you want, but she knows about that time you thought how it would be pretty neat to be George Clooney.
That urge isn’t necessarily desirable or admirable – Coppola is sure to include the consequences eventually meted out to The Bling Ring, though slyly also points out that they weren’t quite as harsh as you would expect – but it’s understandable. And Coppola’s visual and editorial flair continues to be a unique, engaging voice when it comes to such vague social malaise. The opening credits, set to the blaring guitars of Sleigh Bells and a belligerent montage of social media snapshots, sets the same kind kind of loud-and-proud tone as “Marie Antoinette.” Such excess is fine when there’s a purpose behind it, and doubly so when it’s counter-balanced with exquisitely clinical scenes like Marc and Rebecca’s silent, distantly-viewed infiltration of Audrina Partridge’s home. If nothing else, “The Bling Ring” is a testament to the work of the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides (who passed away midway through filming, replaced by Christopher Blauvelt) – his images are crisp and intimate, setting a conspiratorial atmosphere that gives the audience the sense of being part of the gang. We revel in their adventures even as we solemnly declare (or perhaps desperately hope) that we would never do such a thing.
If this all sounds like overbearing critical commentary, it doesn’t play that way at all. This is rock-and-roll filmmaking, fast-paced and consistently entertaining. Coppola back and forth in time from the Bling Ring’s trial to the exploits that led them there, and since the outcome is never in doubt, it’s easy to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Whether it’s Leslie Mann’s hilariously useless attempts at hands-on parenting or Emma Watson’s total lack of self-awareness, all the actors let us know that it’s OK to laugh at these absurd human beings. Only Broussard lets in some real vulnerability, and it’s perhaps Coppola’s cruelest joke that Marc meets the harshest fate. “The Bling Ring” might be the director’s lightest film yet, it’s not really a Coppola film unless its got some bite.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars