When making a film based on actual crimes, there’s a natural inclination to want to explain precisely what drove the perpetrators to commit their deeds. But in the case of The Bling Ring, a movie inspired by a few high school kids’ string of robberies at celebrities’ homes in the late 2000s, writer-director Sofia Coppola’s rationale for their crimes is quite simple: They did it because they were extraordinarily shallow and materialistic. It’s an intriguing notion, but one wishes Coppola wouldn’t pound on this single point for her movie’s entire running time.
Utilizing the same detached air she’s incorporated throughout her films, Coppola doesn’t try to go inside the heads of her characters—or, perhaps, she has and deduced that there wasn’t much there. The so-called Bling Ring (whose exploits were chronicled in a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales) consisted of five Southern California teens, but the movie focuses on three of them: insecure gay misfit Mark (Israel Broussard), star-obsessed Rebecca (Katie Chang) and the foxy vixen Nicki (Emma Watson). What begins as some harmless stealing from unlocked cars soon turns more severe once the gang decides that it would be fun to break into the Hollywood Hills houses of young celebrities while they’re out of town. Actually, the Bling Ring didn’t even really “break in”: Amazingly, these kids quickly learned that they could just hop a gate or find a key under a mat to gain entrance to their victims’ homes.
Such ripped-from-the-headlines material could be attacked from several different angles: whether as a sensationalist, alarmist or moralist. Coppola goes another direction, offering an almost blasé treatment that consciously seeks to undercut the youthful euphoria of the gang’s actions. (It soon becomes obvious that the blaring rock and hip-hop on the soundtrack from Sleigh Bells, Kanye West and M.I.A. isn’t meant to be celebratory but, rather, an ironic commentary on the characters’ ballooning self-esteem as they step out in the fabulous pilfered clothes of Lindsay Lohan, Miranda Kerr and others.)
If Coppola doesn’t want us to be either repulsed or riveted by these kids, then what exactly is she after? That’s the captivating question at the heart of The Bling Ring but, sadly, the answer is not that satisfying. For most of the movie, Coppola lets her characters’ vacuous actions speak for themselves, hinting that perhaps they’re symptomatic of a youth culture so enraptured with self-promotion and fame due to Facebook and tacky entertainment gossip shows that they assume that obtaining the items of the fabulous is, essentially, the same as being fabulous yourself. But is that idea, presented without variance or supplemental character development, enough to carry a film?
There’s no question that The Bling Ring is eminently watchable. It’s not just all the pretty people doing bad things that helps—it’s the pleasure in watching Watson shed her Harry Potter phase convincingly as the deeply calculating Nicki. If last year’s Perks of Being a Wallflower offered her a platform to play a sexy, tart teen, The Bling Ring goes one better, letting her carry the film on the strength of her character’s audacious vapidity. Her costars may overdo the shallowness, but Watson’s casual callousness is frightening and alluring, bringing a kick to the otherwise monotone proceedings.
One could make the argument that The Bling Ring’s all-surface presentation is precisely the point. (It’s as if the movie was made by its star-obsessed nitwits.) But after playing it cool for most of the film, letting the blankness be its own somewhat obvious commentary, Coppola disappointingly feels the need to spell out her themes near the end, allowing the characters to become mouthpieces for the movie’s moral. It’s redundant—and it’s also a little too late. During The Bling Ring’s credits, “Super Rich Kids,” from Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange album, plays. It’s a deceptively unemotional tale of a spoiled big city teen starting to realize the futility of his blinged-out lifestyle. In the span of five minutes, that song has more nuance, humor, insights and kick than The Bling Ring does in 90.
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writers: Sofia Coppola (screenplay); Nancy Jo Sales (Vanity Fair article)
Starring: Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Taissa Farmiga, Claire Julien, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann
Release Date: Screening in Un Certain Regard at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival