During The Bling Ring, I found myself repeatedly whispering in my friend’s ear. She’d been following the real-life story of the four young thieves who would break into the homes of celebrities. “Who’s that?” I would ask, or “What show was she on?” I don’t mean to say I’m above knowing who these famous people; I’m just too old, and my interests do not align with a California teenager. That being said, The Bling Ring ably plunges the audience into a world of nightclubs, hip-hop, and high fashion. The only problem is that writer and director Sofia Coppola is content just to wallow, not to comment, so the uncompromising superficial drama is ultimately grating.
Marc (Israel Broussard) is the new kid at school, and Rebecca (Katie Chang) quickly befriends him. He’s her gay best friend (GBF), and while they never directly address his homosexuality, his knowledge of fashion helps him ingratiate himself with a clique of girls who value designer labels above all else. Nicki (Emma Watson) and her de-facto sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) join the fun, and it’s clear why they have no values: their self-deluding mother (Leslie Mann) uses The Secret as a model for their home schooling. On an idle evening, TMZ informs Marc that Paris Hilton is away in Vegas. He and Rebecca decide to enter her home — she keeps the key under the welcome mat — and steal some of her stuff. The robberies continue whenever other celebrities are away, too, and now the young criminals bring their friends along for the fun.
On one level, the fearlessness of Coppola and her cast is admirable. They never flinch from or apologize for the people they’re portraying, and the kids play it completely straight. In an early scene, Watson’s character walks from a courtroom to announce she wants to start a charity, and there is no winking irony from Watson or Coppola. The director is familiar with this territory: Somewhere shows a man who’s utterly vacant, devoid of humanity, and floating through life. His daughter anchors him, and gives the audience its entry point. But most of that isn’t here with The Bling Ring: we only see the perspective of the young criminals, and they’re too dim-witted or amoral to consider what they’re doing. Marc offers a protest when Rebecca lingers too long, but even he seems to realize it’s perfunctory.
What we have, therefore, is a series of break-ins. They are handsomely staged: the cinematography drains the action of any wrinkle, so every shot looks like it belongs in a glossy magazine. In an interesting scene, the camera watches the break-in from afar; in the Hollywood hills, the kids are more like specters than thieves. Still, for the most part, The Bling Ring plays out like a hip-hop video, with snippets of banal dialogue and pop songs stringing it together. I get what Coppola is trying to do here — she wants superficiality as substance — but she lingers the material so it goes back to superficial again. This is uniquely her wheelhouse — Harmony Korine says much more about contemporary culture with Spring Breakers (TMT Review) than Coppola attempts here, and she sticks to her guns even after the inevitable arrest.
The Bling Ring does not ask for nuance from its actors, only commitment. Watson adds a little valley girl to her voice, and her scene with Vanity Fair reporter Nancy Jo Sales is almost funny because of her ability to keep a straight face. Newcomer Chang plays Rebecca as if she’s a manipulative sociopath. At the Tribeca film festival this year, I had the chance to see her playing a sincere, sweet kid in The Birder’s Guide to Everything, and it’s hard to believe she’s the same person. Still, the strongest actor is Farmiga, who has the only scene that’s remotely interesting. She stumbles onto a loaded gun and grows intoxicated with its power over men. When she brings it to her boyfriend’s house, there’s a sense of erotic danger. It’s there that Coppola strikes a tone, but the rest of the film sadly unfolds coldly.
Rebecca, Marc, and the others eventually face the consequences of their crimes, and Coppola handles the legal scenes with a brusque style. We do not see Nicki serve any time in prison; instead, we get a story about Lindsay Lohan’s prison time (she got to keep her hair extensions). Nicki cannot have experiences of her own: it’s pathological, and The Bling Ring is a glimpse into what is must be like to exist like that. This movie is pure cinema, and it is also boring as fuck.