Bling Ring, The (U.S./U.K./France, 2013)June 24, 2013
Watching The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola's exploration of today's "celebrity culture," is an uncomfortable - bordering on unpleasant - experience. The problem isn't the depiction of the underside of America's celebrity obsession but the manner in which it is represented. All the characters are shallow and one-dimensional and, while one can argue that this is the point, it doesn't make for 90 minutes of engaging cinema. Spending time with these loathsome, self-absorbed individuals, none of whom has a single endearing characteristic, is an ordeal. Watching The Bling Ring is akin to going through the looking glass. The sad thing is that, although Coppola focuses on people who seem like they were invented on a screenwriter's word processor, they're strongly based on real individuals (the factual events occurred in 2008 and 2009), and it's hard to judge who's more vile and clueless: the perpetrators or their victims.
The story focuses on five teenage characters: four girls and one (gay) boy. These five form "The Bling Ring." The leader, Rebecca (Katie Chang), is cool, regal, and brand-obsessed. She strikes up a friendship with Marc (Israel Broussard), a loner who is new to the "alternative" high school she attends. Once he's on board, she reels in a few of her friends: the hot blond Chloe (Claire Julien) and the sister team of Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga, who's the younger sister of Vera Farmiga). By studying trade papers and surfing the Internet, they learn when paparazzi-beloved celebrities (like Paris Hilton, Miranda Kerr, Lindsay Lohan, etc.), are out of town. They then pay a visit to the empty houses and spend time hanging out, doing drugs, and swiping cash and pretty things. Their crime spree lasts a surprisingly long time until finally one of them is unlucky enough to be caught on a security camera and, once he is in custody, it doesn't take long for the rest of the dominos to fall.
From a sociological perspective, it can be argued that The Bling Ring has value. It illustrates the most absurd depths to which a combination of celebrity obsession and a craving for instant gratification can compel a person. The girls and boy in this film are devoid of conscience and primarily concerned with the accumulation of material possessions. Their choices of "favorite celebrities" to become prime victims are indicative of their own world views. They feel a sense of entitlement to the wealth of others. They are also not the brightest of criminals - it's only blind luck and the obliviousness of their marks that allow them to remain on the loose for so long.
The culture, grotesque as it may be, is compelling but the characters aren't, and therein lies The Bling Ring's Achilles heel. The movie is unable to avoid the audience isolation that can occur when the central individuals are both unappealing and uninteresting. It's possible to make powerful films about unlikeable figures - one need look no farther than Sofia's father's classic The Godfather for an example. But the Corleones, as cruel and violent as they could be, were fascinating. While it's monumentally unfair to compare The Godfather with The Bling Ring, Sofia is unable to clear the hurdle of making even one of her five primary targets stand out as more than a hastily sketched caricature. A more apt comparison might be with Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, which made some of the same points about a dangerously unfocused and conscience-free aspect of today's youth, but did so with energy, force, and considerably more venom.
Repetition is also an issue in The Bling Ring. Once the movie gets all the pieces in place, it spends about half its running length depicting variations of the same activity: two or more of the characters break into a decadent celebrity pad, party for a while, then steal some stuff. The most visually striking of these heists works because of an interesting choice made by the filmmakers. The scene is shot in one take from a distance. The house, which is almost entirely made of glass, allows us to see the characters as they move from room-to-room committing their larceny. The sequence emphasizes the distance between the characters and the audience. Here, they might as well be insects in an ant farm going about their business.
The five principal actors, including Emma Watson, do admirable jobs portraying monumentally shallow examples of humanity. Aside from Watson, who's a veteran in the business courtesy of Harry Potter, most of the actors are newcomers with only a few credits to their names. Considering this, the consistency of their portrayals is exemplary. Coppola has always been able to elicit memorable performances; the problem with The Bling Ring isn't related to the actors, it's about the characters.
I can't say that The Bling Ring is without merit or purpose, but I can say that it's not entirely successful. Coppola's attempts to balance a condemnation of the characters' lifestyle with a detached, observational approach doesn't really work. It makes The Bling Ring feel a little unfocused at times and we're ready to abort spending time with these individuals well before the end credits tell us that Coppola is done with them.
Bling Ring, The (U.S./U.K./France, 2013)
Cast: Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Georgia Rock, Leslie Mann
Screenplay: Sofia Coppola, based on the Vanity Fair article "The Suspect Wore Louboutins" by Nancy Jo Sales
Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt, Harris Savides
Music: Daniel Lopatin, Brian Reitzell
U.S. Distributor: A24
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