Sofia Coppola’s fifth film is based on the true story of a group of young adults in the Beverly Hills area who made a hobby out of sneaking into the homes of movie stars and tabloid celebrities and leaving with souvenirs of their illicit late night visits. Souvenirs worth over $3 million. Their primary targets were the media darlings they idolised; Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson and – queen of them all – Lindsay Lohan.
It sounds like a fun proposition for a film, enabling Coppola to take a loving swipe at vainglorious celebrities, whilst offering another opportunity for her to tap into that vein of detached gratification that has served her previously in Marie Antoinette and Somewhere. I’m a staunch defender of both films, which received very mixed receptions. Indeed from my perspective Coppola has been on something of an unbroken winning streak. I love her style of filmmaking. Which makes The Bling Ring something of a puzzle for me, because where previously her artistic eye has drawn intrigue and sympathy for her seemingly vacuous focal characters, here I found… nothing.
It all begins when Marc (Israel Broussard) moves to a new school and makes friends with Rebecca (Katie Chang). They bond instantly over their delinquencies, and it is not long before Rebecca is instigating petty thefts and break-ins. The motivation behind these acts of criminality seems to be boredom as much as anything. Teenage rebellion to pass the time. When we see them out with their wider circle of friends, Coppola reports back to us a culture of complete bankruptcy. Impossibly beautiful children posing repeatedly for cameraphones that are poised to update their Facebook pages and nothing more.
It’s an uneasy and timely reminder of just how superficial some aspects of their generation appear to be. A world ruled by fashion magazines, celebrity spotting in clubs and Google maps. Indeed it is the touchscreen master-key of the internet that gives these teenagers everything they need to break into their favourite celebrities’ homes. A gossip blog advises of when Paris Hilton will be out of town, a quick stop at a search engine offers her address and Hilton’s own daunting lack of security provides them access.
To begin with it seems as though robbing the rich(er) is not Marc and Rebecca’s main intention. They take relatively little from Hilton’s on their first visit, instead treating it as a sort of naughty amusement. Like they’ve snuck away from the tour guide. Their daredevil exploits are impossible to keep secret though, and as soon as they’re done they can’t resist bragging about it. The circle who know about it widens, and everyone wants a piece of the action.
This sends The Bling Ring into its lengthy middle stretch as we follow the same group of kids through a cycle which quickly becomes repetitious. They hone in on a celebrity, they break in, they steal shit. The next day they play catwalk in their bedrooms with their ill-gotten high heels and bracelets. They smoke weed, do a couple of lines of coke, go out to a club. Lather, rinse, repeat.
In fairness, Coppola does mix things up a little. The most striking set-up of the film sees a break-in viewed entirely from outside the premises in a long slow zoom. The quick in-and-out nature of the visit shows us just how priorities have shifted. If only this represented The Bling Ring at it’s most detached. Not even close. Staring at a building framed by the LA skyline offers as much depth as the countless ‘intimate’ scenes following Marc and co. The young actors are all fine, more or less, but none of them are stretched to emote in the slightest. They are all ciphers. Differently dressed copies of one another who exchange empty dialogue.
This vacuity is no doubt intentional. Coppola is showing us (surprise!) how void of meaning and value celebrity culture is. But it’s all one note. The Bling Ring has no trajectory. We know from the outset that these kids are all going to get caught. This makes 90 minutes in their company feel very long indeed.
Unsurprisingly Emma Watson is largely perceived as the star of The Bling Ring as she’s the most famous cast member. She’s fine, and shows off some neat comic timing, especially in a Vanity Fair interview toward the end of the movie (a scene which betrays how much more fun this all could’ve been). However the lion’s share of the work goes to the aforementioned Broussard and Chang. As previously intimated however, they are given little to really work with. The Bling Ring steadfastly leaves nothing of itself behind except its own emptiness.
It seems churlish to condemn this movie, especially after defending Somewhere from similar criticisms two years ago, but there was humanity to Somewhere for those that were patient with it. The Bling Ring offers no such rewards. It’s almost as if Somewhere‘s Johnny Marco was patient zero in the spread of an epidemic. The kids in The Bling Ring are the next stage of that infection. Marco found remedy in his daughter Cleo. Marc, Rebecca and the others don’t even want a cure. By the end of the film Nicki has become a celebrity herself. She’s transcended. Maybe some spoiled teens who ought to be in school will come and steal her shit. I hope so.
The Bling Ring looks the business. Coppola is a master stylist and this is up there with anything else she’s done on those terms. Substantively speaking however, it’s utterly hollow. Maybe I’m still reeling from The Act Of Killing last week, but with this much obvious talent Coppola could be doing so much more. As such, this aimless puff piece simply feels like one of America’s most interesting filmmakers is completely wasting her time.