Review: 'The Bling Ring'

“In a country that doesn't discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable.” ― Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin

There’s a moment in Sofia Coppola’s fascinating new film, “The Bling Ring,” in which Emma Watson (née Hermione) learns that her friends have been looting the vacant homes of young celebrities, and  – with a reflexive vacancy – immediately declares, “I want to rob!” Watson is playing a thinly veiled fictionalization of teen fameball Alexis Neiers, a home-schooled reality TV star at the periphery of the crime spree that briefly enjoyed national attention circa the series finale of “The Hills” (or, as historians refer to it, 2010). Her lust for fame wasn’t necessarily representative of the group as a whole, and Coppola’s film is far too rich to reduce these events to a single motivating factor, but Neiers’ detachment from her own desire, the way in which she can speak her wants without understanding what drives them, is convincing testimony to the idea that, if you don’t know who you are, the most seductive thing you can be offered is the opportunity to be someone else.

Philosopher / film theorist Gilles Deleuze wrote (and I’m paraphrasing here) that only bad films take place in the present, and “The Bling Ring” suggests that perhaps the same could be said of people. The kids in “The Bling Ring,” affluent but broken, can barely see through their stolen designer sunglasses. Coppola, perhaps the reigning master of modern remove, captures their ebullient blindness by refusing to settle into a mode of sympathy or critical critique, the matter of perspective becoming an active and dynamic part of the film’s inquiry. Marc (Israel Broussard), the plastic kid in a new town who falls in with the wrong crowd, is the closest thing the film has to a protagonist, but “The Bling Ring” is deliberately scattered where Sofia Coppola’s previous films were locked in with laser focus. Where once she had us watch her characters, now she instructs us to surveil them.

Marc meets Rebecca (newcomer Katie Chang, whose limited emotional register and dormant beauty make her the Platonic Ideal of a Coppola character) the moment that he first steps foot in the local Calabasas high school, and the two of them become fast friends. The film doesn’t presume to know the chemistry behind their immediate connection (it’s worth noting that their friendship isn’t romantic, as Marc embodies one of the most refreshingly casual depictions of a gay character in the history of mainstream American cinema), but it seems as though Rebecca is tickled by her new pal’s eminent corruptibility. She’s got a habit for stealing things from unlocked park cars, and Marc is too eager for Rebecca’s friendship to caution her against herself.

Rebecca pretty much lives every night like it’s The Purge, and it isn’t long before she decides to kick things up a notch and rob houses. And not just any houses, but the most loaded ones she can imagine: celebrity houses. E! News tells her that Paris Hilton is out of town, Google tells her where the heiress lives, and common sense tells her that her target has probably left a hide-a-key under the welcome mat by her front door. Cut to Rebecca and Marc marveling at the interior of Paris Hilton’s house, a gaudy rhinestone dungeon so choked with images of its owner that even the throw pillows are emblazoned with Paris’ face (the fact that Hilton allowed Coppola to shoot in her actual home brilliantly illustrates the degree of myopia that drives this story).

Despite (or perhaps because of) the illicit nature of their activities, Marc and Rebecca naturally can’t help but share their glories with some other kids they know, and it isn’t long before their gang of thieves begins to gain new faces. Most notably, they’re joined by the fame-obsessed Nicki (Emma Watson), a prim sociopath who’s home-schooled by her mother (Leslie Mann) in the pseudo-spiritual teachings of The Secret. For Nicki, The Secret and its core Law of Attraction posits a world in which everyone is owed what happiness they can imagine, a notion she doesn’t even try to reconcile with the fact that she lives in a city teeming with unearned fame.

Beyond her, none of these little criminals are particularly memorable or distinct, Coppola hopping between characters and their respective home lives with an attention span almost as short as those of the Adderall-popping kids she observes, the narrative skittering around the timeline until the crime spree, its lead up and its aftermath attain a Tralfamadorian sense of temporal concurrence. Much of the narrative is stitched together with Facebook photos, snapshots frozen in time so as to make the “present” that much less relevant.

In a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine, Coppola offered “When I go to a concert, everyone is filming and photographing themselves and then posting the pictures right away. It is almost as if your experiences don’t count unless you have an audience watching them.” While hardly a novel sentiment, Coppola’s anecdotal observation nevertheless speak to the fundamental lack of presentness at the heart of her new movie. How do you live in the moment when you can’t even tell when the moment is, anymore?

In flattening the story, Coppola isolates us from the hedonistic fever that rushes through these kids, positioning her audience to enjoy the spectacle of these robberies without ever entirely understanding their thrill.  As a result, “The Bling Ring” plays less like a movie about celebrity culture or a uniquely current strain of entitlement than it does as a concerned portrait of lost perspective, a glimpse at a generation caught between feeling entitled to everything they can touch, and being owned by everything they can see. Much will be made about the surface similarities between “The Bling Ring” and Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” (another recent film about hedonistic young people, also distributed by A24), but where Korine’s feverish freakout is obsessed with capitalism and the dynamics of sexual power, Coppola’s pointedly de-sexed film (as is customary in her work, carnal desires are almost too common to matter, mere screens to deeper truths) suggests that young people can’t hope to be the future if they can’t even see the future.

That being said, upon first blush “The Bling Ring” may not even be immediately identifiable as a Sofia Coppola film, the brash style (the film opens with – gasp! – handheld, and in media res, to boot) is a far cry from the measured and sometimes antiseptic compositions she perfected with Lance Acord, the cinematographer with whom she shot “Lost in Translation” and “Marie Antoinette,” before switching over to the late Harris Savides for the more arid L.A. aesthetics of “Somewhere” and “The Bling Ring” (Savides died prior to completion of this film, and was replaced by Christopher Blauvelt. The long wide shot through which his camera captures the kids robbing Audrina Partridge’s house, reportedly Savides’ favorite take from the movie, is a fitting tribute to his legacy).

Moreover, Coppola – working with real-world characters from recent history – is handcuffed to the music that these kids might actually have been listening to during their crime spree, which must have been a challenge for a filmmaker known for her brilliantly expressive use of pop music. Sleigh Bells’ “Crown on the Ground” provides a perfect overture, but the appearance of Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” over the closing credits might provide unfortunate posteriori ammunition for those who see the film as little more than a blunt indictment. While some stylistic consistencies remain (a particularly cute jump-cut towards the end of the film is a warm reminder of Johnny Marco’s trip to Italy), the differences expose Coppola’s truest signature: the empathy she harbors for characters who seem known to everyone but themselves.

Ultimately, that’s where the forces of privilege and celebrity collide in her films, Coppola’s characters wedged between the happiness we demand of the wealthy and the transparency we insist serve as the price of their status. Lazy viewers have already determined that Coppola’s films are all about the ennui of celebrities and / or bored rich white people (which, truth be told, are both perfectly valid subjects), but “The Bling Ring” illustrates how the problems suffered by those we think aren’t allowed to have any can sometimes function as a direct line to the irreducibly human heartaches shared by anyone fortunate enough to live above the poverty line.

Uncharacteristically loose and deceptively frivolous, “The Bling Ring” is as much of an attack on The Hills Generation as any of Coppola’s previous films were an exercise in self-pity, which is to say not at all. On the contrary, Coppola takes an incident that seemed like a garish indictment of modern civilization and, from this mishegoss of hot pink Louboutins, carves a rich (and even urgent) portrait of a society that has lost control of its culture, a place where aspirations have become the ultimate impediment to actual happiness.

SCORE: 8.6 / 10

P.S. If you've made it this far and are somehow still interested in what I have to say about Sofia Coppola, here's an essay I wrote about Scarlett Johansson's underwear in "Lost in Translation." Yes, really.