This year already, we have seen more than our share of movies exploring the vacuous and compensatory nature of excess in our lives. Works like The Great Gatsby and Spring Breakers, for example, expose how we avoid the brittleness of our very selves by hiding behind expensive things, debauched behavior, and general incuriosity toward the world. They also show us how ruinous such behavior can be. It’s all very profound, very serious stuff, you see, and the moralistic hand of directors like Baz Luhrmann and Harmony Korine want so earnestly for us to know that!
I don’t mean to pick on Luhrmann or Korine here; both their films are accomplished works in their own rights (the more I think about Breakers, the more I respect it), and they make their respective points with due effectiveness. Rather, I mean only to contrast their approach against Sofia Coppola’s lighter, somewhat goofier depiction of a world ruled by material-obsessed brats in her new film The Bling Ring, as the movie is sure to foster comparisons to them. A filmmaker endlessly accused of nepotism and of only telling stories about privileged people and their bourgeois problems, I imagine many will dismiss Coppola’s vision as too glib in its depiction of five awful rich kids burgling the homes of even richer celebrities and tabloid magnets. There may be some truth to that dismissal; the movie has issues giving its message true potency. But I still find myself mostly appreciating Coppola’s more curious, surprisingly empathetic outlook on her characters’ actions, which feel far more like introspection than condemnation. The Bling Ring, while not quite matching the effectiveness of Coppola’s brilliant work in Lost in Translation or the underrated Somewhere, ruminates rather thoughtfully on our collective fascination with fashion, celebrity, and the morally repellant social elite.
Based on the true events chronicled in Nancy Jo Sales’ 2010 Vanity Fair essay “The Suspect Wore Louboutins,” We see The Bling Ring primarily through the eyes of Marc (Israel Broussard), a young aspiring fashion designer who was transferred out of his old high school for “having too many absences.” The first friend Marc makes is Becca (Katie Chang), who bonds with him after she confesses her own academic woes, including “having too many substances that aren’t allowed in school.” Soon enough, Marc and Becca start getting into trouble together, swiping cash and valuables from unlocked cars on the street. Their fun escalates into something markedly more serious when Becca convinces them to break into a swanky L.A. mansion whose resident is out of town, to steal his money and go for a joyride in his convertible. Then, after learning Paris Hilton is going to be away from home for an evening, they casually decide to break into the socialite’s home to rob as much from her as their arms can carry. And by “break in,” I mean Paris left the key to the front door under the mat. Literally, under the mat.
Marc makes several other girlfriends through Becca, including the scarily audacious Nicki (Emma Watson), who delights in their burglarizing exploits with her own specialized brand of sociopathy. Together their burgling enterprise escalates, and the label-obsessed gangsters start robbing the homes of other celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Rachel Bilson (oh, and they make a few more trips to Paris’ house, of course).This remains the M.O. for the “Bling Ring” – breaking and entering and robbing and re-selling – until the inevitable downfall that leads these kids to be arrested, and to unexpected celebrity status.
The most surprising aspect to The Bling Ring is how focused and restrained Coppola can be in her minimalism. Oftentimes her camera remains static, urging the viewer’s eyes to pour over every corner and every facet of the lavishly decorated households being stolen from and to experience – at least on a primal level – feelings of materialistic desire and coveting. It’s really an effective approach; Coppola’s filmmaking quite successfully captures the kind of vicarious pleasure to be wrung from coveting the things of a more successful person, taking them for yourself, and claiming as your own the identity wrapped up in all those things. Coppola, who also wrote the movie, is clearly not as interested in writing specific, nuanced, idiosyncratic characters in her Bling Ring Quintet (and really, I’m not sure how much can be said about Broussard and Chang in their roles). To her, the movie’s protagonist is but a simple fact: the fact of wanting, and of taking, and of finding pleasure and power in taking what you want.
Coppola’s movie best evokes all this when she does not to to editorialize on the vapidity inherent to her characters’ desires. Her open shots and her obsession with sensation over characterization liberates the viewer to absorb the story on their own moral terms. This is why Coppola’s film ultimately lessens in impact whenever it decides to have something to say about the “Ring” and their obsession with Bling. The solipsistic character of Nicki, seemingly oblivious to the wrongness of everything she does, is certainly the source of the movie’s broadest and biggest laughs. She is also the strident, ironic mouthpiece of Coppola’s thesis. Admittedly, Emma Watson relishes the role and delights in it; think of her as the Bizzaro Universe iteration of her Perks of Being a Wallflower character. The outrageous things she says, especially once the paparazzi entertain her musings, read like blatant attempts to assure us just how repugnant the depicted behavior actually is, and that there is something perversely wrong about how we fete such deeds. The occasional inclusion of Nicki’s mother (Leslie Mann) as an overbearing teacher of a Karmic West-Coast Science Religion seems like a particularly cheap stab at exposing these characters’ deluded L.A. buffoonery as well, ultimately working against the quieter, more successful work Coppola does here.
Yet The Bling Ring does ultimately succeed in its ambitions, even if it is a qualified success. It follows Coppola’s singular tradition of making conceptually interesting films, ones that are thematically resonant (if occasionally compromised). It will reward those who have patience with her sensibility. Certainly, there are many with no such patience. So for those who hated Marie Antoinette and Somewhere, do steer clear. But for those seeking a gentler, less serious-minded exploration of American materialism, the movie is worth the mere ninety minutes it requests.
Bottom Line: The Bling Ring is a thoughtful, empathetic and mostly successful meditation on our obsession with having all the things.