Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring" had camp potential. Pulling from a headline that blew up on gossip rags and national news outlets alike, the latest from the "Lost in Translation" director follows a clique of high schoolers who turn to a life of crime for a taste of the Hollywood lifestyle. Dubbed "The Bling Ring" by the media, the crew pilfered the likes of Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom, and anyone with an affinity for Gucci before the scheme was abruptly put to an end by a well-placed security camera.
The Bling Ring consists of a particularly mellow bunch of celeb-obsessed teens — the ringleader Rebecca is too lost in her own materialism to really emerge with a personality. Her best friend Marc is content with being follower, even when robbery is on the table. Only one person really stands out: Emma Watson's Nicki, a fashionista wannabe with an ideology founded on The Secret. Coppola never digs too far into Nicki's life to explain why she might be the way she is, a few brief encounters with her enthusiastic and relentlessly supportive mother, Laurie (Leslie Mann), working as an explanation for her delusion. This is by design. As Film.com Senior Editor Daivd Ehrlich puts it in his review, "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."
Coppola's restraint works for her movie, but it leaves the door open for further examination. Thankfully, For those of us who want a more deeper understanding of Nicki, her mother, and her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga), we have the E! Entertainment Network. In 2010, E! produced nine-episodes of "Pretty Wild," a reality show tracking the careers of Tess Taylor and Alexis Neiers, two social butterflies in Hollywood hoping to make it big as models. Seemingly unbeknownst to anyone involved with making of the show (including producer Chelsea Handler), the pilot was shot in the weeks surrounding the arrest of Alexis — the basis for Watson's Nicki character. We see the scene towards the end of "The Bling Ring." That's where "Pretty Wild" begins, acting as an anthropological study of real life counterparts. Whether you're an avid viewer of "reality" television or not (I'm not), "Pretty Wild" is a surprisingly revealing portrait of Coppola's fictional interpretations of Neiers and Taylor. Here's a glimpse behind the curtain:
Episode 1: "The Arrest" Right off the bat, it's clear that Alexis (then 19) and her sister-from-another-mother Tess (then 21) are finding a bit of success. Thanks to the connections of their mother, Andrea, a holistic housewife who spent her early days as a Playboy centerfold, they're landing modeling jobs and squeezing their way into a demanding industry. It seems to be a chicken and the egg situation: Do you make a name in the competitive world of print modeling first or does that come after you land an E! reality show? Before any of the Bling Ring accusations come to light, Alexis and Tess both book a high profile gig at Biatta lingerie that they believe will be a break out. Coppola's introduction to Nicki and Sam's family life is over-the-top and wickedly funny.
We see the two girls and their little sister, Emily (the fake version of Gabby Neiers) , sit down for their morning lesson: Making visual boards of people with great characters. Like Angelina Jolie. I thought the scene was sharp writing and biting satire on the part of Coppola. In fact, its an actual transcription of a moment in "Pretty Wild." In that scene, Andrea asks the group what they admire about Jolie. Tess responds, "Her husband?" Coppola put that right into the movie:
Of course, the dream life of home school, modeling, and clubbing all night is cut short when the cops come a'knockin' at Alexis door. She's hauled away to jail, her family spends 24 hours bawling and claiming her innocence, and "Pretty Wild" starts barreling past the events of "The Bling Ring." When Alexis returns home, Andrea delivers a sermon from the pages of The Secret and reminds her daughters of her most important lesson. Teresa: "What have I been telling you since you were little girls?" All in unison: "Never do anything that you don't want on the front page of the L.A. Times." Unfortunately, the scandal forces Alexis to lose the Biatta job. Lame.
Episode 2: "The Hearing" "Pretty Wild" raises an interesting point in its follow-up to the arrest: If you're a reality show star, is any press bad press? Coppola touches upon this in the final moments of "Bling Ring," but watching Alexis wade through paparazzi and break down over the negative exposure, only to have the scene followed by her sister's date with Ryan Cabrera, helps us realize that the show wouldn't have much of a hook if Alexis wasn't a criminal. Her show has a story to tell, and in turn, her life (which she wants to live on camera) has a purpose. Like many reality stars, Alexis is always on; In her first court appearance, as defense attorney Jeffrey Rubenstein launches questions as the police who caught her on camera stealing property from Orlando Bloom's house, she works the camera; through tears, she delivers lines like, "I was meant to bring truth to this situation!"; And when Tess returns from bowling with Ryan Cabrera (guess he'll do anything for a buck?), the two hold promise to always be there for each other, even as they're being run out of town by neighbors who aren't too keen on their camera crews. Alexis sees herself as the victim of a system. She accuses her former friends of pulling into their diabolical plan. All she wants to do is go shopping and make the world a better place. Her mother and sisters couldn't agree more.
Episode 3: "The Move" It becomes quickly apparent that Alexis' legal issues are in direct competition with her reality show lifestyle. Her defense team begs her to wear conservative clothing and stay inside, keeping as low-key as possible. Instead, she and Tess dress up in skimpy cheerleader costumes for a photo shoot with NFL tight end Vernon Davis. Surprisingly, this behavior will come back to haunt her. As alluded to in "The Bling Ring," Farmiga's Sam is not technically Nicki's sister, adopted by Laurie from a family friend. In "Pretty Wild," we get a better idea of why Tess joined the family and how she deals with her outsider status. Her mother was a drug addicted friend of Andrea's (they allude to the fact that she may also have been a model).
Tess is left out of the Bling Ring hullaballoo in the scope of "Pretty Wild," but Coppola makes the claim that she was there during Alexis' Hollywood raids. So while she's roped into the frenzy over the heists, her out-the-picture mother is attempting to get her daughter back in her life. Juxtaposed with the absurdity of taking care of a new dog, the complicated situation feels a bit lighter than it might have been (and "Bling Ring" purposefully puts that story thread aside). Interesting tidbit that neither "Bling Ring" or "Pretty Wild" has time to get into: Over the course of filming — and theoretically, during the robberies — Alexis and Tess were abusing heroin. There's debate over whether Emma Watson is seen smoking heroin in a scene of the film, but regardless, the addiction took both girls to rehab. Alexis chronicled the experience in a blog post published in April of this year.
Episode 4: "The Party" In Coppola's version of the story, Alexis and Tess' proxies eventually rope their 15-year-old sister Gabby into the Bling Ring. In the film, the young girl has a certain level of naïveté, and that's consistent with her presence in "Pretty Wild." It's easy to notice Gabby's slow corruption over the course of the series' nine episodes, with her 16th birthday being an obvious turning point. She doesn't care about clothes, but her sister's push to care. She doesn't care about boys, but her sisters insist she should. To ensure that her birthday will be biggest party in town, Tess miraculously books DJ Paul Oakenfold. Maybe she hooked that up with contacts, but signs point to E!'s influence. Like the hand of God, the channel's will is all over what transpires in "Pretty Wild" and even under the skin of "The Bling Ring."
When Oakenfold shows up to party, "Pretty Wild" takes its most interesting turn. The DJ recognizes Alexis as a member of The Bling Ring, and half-jokingly accuses her of plotting to rob his house. It's evidence of how incestual the whole crime really was — the Bling Ring was breaking into the homes of famous faces, but Alexis and Tess were at a point where they, through the help of their TV show or just on their own clubbing merits, could have palled around with those same people.
Episode 5: "What Happens in Cabo, Stays in Cabo" No. It doesn't. After flying down to Mexico for a beachside swimsuit shoot, Alexis and Tess realize the full extent of screwing with celebrities, They're tracked by TMZ, who posts pictures of them partying on its website. While playing robber in "The Bling Ring," Nicki acts untouchable. Even when she's arrested, she puts on the waterworks and soaks up the camera flashes. The post-arrest Alexis clearly wants to be that girl — but she can't. Her reality show life is battling the hardships of being the target of the courts. Were watching this girl go crazy to the latest hits of Top 20 radio. Alexis is insistent that she's innocent and misunderstood by the press, so E! throws her under the bus. They open this episode with the girls checking out a red carpet snapshot of Lindsey Lohan. "I love that picture," Gabby says. Alexis follows it up with, "I love that dress."
Episode 6: "Vanity Unfair" The rah-rah attitude of Alexis' home-life is her destructive fallback. In the sixth episode, she gets the call from "Vanity Fair" writer Nancy Jo Sales with an offer for an interview. This is great news for the family. Alexis will get to tell her story and do a photo shoot for a magazine that has hosted her favorite stars. This might be the pinnacle of Alexis' delusion. Sales, whose book "The Bling Ring" provided Coppola with her source material, appears on the show to interview Alexis and her subject lays it on thick. It's surprising how much The Secret actually informs Alexis' outlook on life. Her life goals are broad generalizations about changing the world enhanced by the power of positive thinking. She considers her life in Los Angeles to be "wholesome" and "down to Earth." When asked about dealing with the court case, she admits that she's been through "a lot of tough, tough stuff." Sales can't help but give her a hug.
Weeks later the magazine hits newsstands and Alexis is outraged by the inaccuracies in the piece. Example: "I WASN'T WEARING LOUIS VUITTON'S I WAS WEARING LITTLE BROWN KITTEN HEELS THAT F**KING B**CH." If there was a question as to whether The Secret was a full-blown religion to Alexis and her family, Andrea takes her daughter's hands and leads them in a prayer for karma. "You fucking rock, girl," is Andrea's words of support.
Episode 7: "Mommy Dearest" "Pretty Wild" stars to lose traction when the court case ramps up, the show clearly being disinterested in the legal roller coaster that the family is losing itself too. But Laurie/Andrea is a character that Coppola has little time to explore and leaves in the comedic hands of Leslie Mann (who is exactly like Andrea in real life). Here the mother has a mental breakdown. Pure and simple. She witnesses her laissez-faire parenting strategy blow up in her face. There's a whole "Bling Ring" paralell film waiting to happen centered on Andrea dealing with parenting two budding models in the thick of criminal charges. Maybe Leslie Mann can get Judd Apatow for that. He knows a few things about side-sequels.
Episode 8: "Bird and Bees" Obviously over the damaging eruption caused by giving up on her children's antics, Andrea stages a Playboy photoshoot for Tess in the comfort of their home shower. A throw away episode that reminds us that Tess went on to become one of Playboy's Cyber Girls shortly after shooting the show (and that areola can be easily removed so E! can show actual breasts on their TV shows — the wonders of digital effects).
Episode 9: "And So It Is" "It's all in God's hands, Alexis. It'll all be good." Alexis is eventually given an offer to plead guilty and go to jail for six months. As she tells the confession camera, she declined, because she couldn't go to jail for something she didn't do. At least, she feels that way for a few days. She lapses into depression and Andrea discovers that it may be caused by a newfound addiction to Xanax (although, we now know it was much, much worse). To snap her daughter out of a stint of pill-popping habit, Andrea puts in terms Alexis will understand: She compares her daughter to Anna Nicole Smith. "Look what happened there."
Alexis eventually wises up, talks to a therapist, throws in the towel on her proceedings, and takes the the offer. The series ends with a big group hug because everything will be OK if they say it will. As David puts in eloquently puts in his review, "The Bling Ring" functions as "a glimpse at a generation caught between feeling entitled to everything they can touch, and being owned by everything they can see." Coppola's film skims the surface of the events because what happened was already occurring underneath the exterior of these kids' lives. "Getting away with it" was seductive, and eventually they couldn't balance the fantasy life they were playing out behind closed doors. Retroactively, "Pretty Wild" extends the hallucinatory actions of Alexis and Tess. They keep up a facade — the reality show veneer — but as the cameras roll, life chips away at them. Maybe celebrity television isn't so emotionless after all.