Bling Ring, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/21/13 05:38:43
When I first heard about the so-called "Bling Ring," a group of Southern California teenagers whose 2008-2009 crime wave netted more than $3 million in money, jewels and designer clothes from a group of largely unsuspecting famous faces, their story sounded like it was tailor-made for a movie, but what kind? After all, the self-absorbed protagonists were committing their crimes largely to feed their egos and closets as opposed to doing them for more identifiable reasons like need or revenge, the victims were so privileged that many of them did not even realize that any of their valuables had been stolen at first and while technological advances may have aided in their planning, the crimes themselves were of a decidedly low-tech nature.Clearly it would take an uncommonly gifted filmmaker to take these elements and transform them into a film that would be something more than just a live-action "Vanity Fair" article focused on people who have nothing to offer to the world other than notoriety and an outsized sense of self-entitlement. Luckily, Sofia Coppola is just that kind of filmmaker and as a result, what might have wound up like a less hyper-violent West Coast variation of the loathsome "Pain & Gain" is instead a brilliantly conceived and executed meditation on greed and contemporary celebrity culture that is both one of the very best films of the year and further proof that Coppola is one of the finest and most incisive American directors working today.
Based on an article for, uh, "Vanity Fair" written by Nancy Jo Sales (which was later expanded into a book), "The Bling Ring" starts off as the over-medicated Marc (Israel Broussard) arrives for his first day at a high school for students with disciplinary problems and is instantly and inexplicably befriended by Rebecca (Katie Chang), with whom he bonds over their shared fashion sense--she wants to go to the same design school as the people from "The Hills" while he talks about his dreams of one day having his own lifestyle brand. One night, while the two are walking home from a party, Rebecca nonchalantly opens the doors of several unlocked parked cars and makes off with the cash and credit cards carelessly left inside.
From that humble beginning--though there is the sense that Rebecca has done this before--the two sneak into the house belonging to an acquaintance of Marc's that he knows is out of town and make off with a few valuables. Then, while scouring the Internet for news about Paris Hilton, they learn from her online postings that she is out of town hosting some shindig and Rebecca hits upon the idea of doing the same thing with her. At first, Marc demurs--it sounds crazy and they are certain to get caught--but before long, they show up at her house (after looking up the address online) and discover to their surprise that it is just as easy to get into Paris Hilton's house as it is to. . .well, you can finish the joke yourself.
After successfully making their way through Hilton's shrine to herself, Rebecca and Marc, along with a gradually expanding group that includes sisters Nicki (Emma Watson) and Emily (Georgia Rock), Nicki's live-in BFF Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Chloe (Claire Julien) united by the rallying cry of "Let's Go Shopping," begin hitting the home of many of the very same young celebrities whose activities that avidly follow via the likes of TMZ and "Us Weekly"--Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox and, of course, numerous reentries into the House of Hilton--to grab a few items as casually as you or I might be when legitimately going shopping. (A break-in at Rachel Bilson's place is suggested because "I want some Chanel.") Inevitably, word of their spree begins to spread--largely thanks to their own braggings to their other friends--and that, combined with security camera footage leads to their eventual arrests. In an ironic twist, the crimes make them celebrities of a sort and they are soon pursued by the paparazzi and celebrated by onlookers with the same fervor as those who they victimized in the first place.
Over the course of her first four feature films, "The Virgin Suicides" (2000), "Lost in Translation," "Marie Antoinette" (2006) and "Somewhere" (2010), Sofia Coppola has explored the notions of privilege and the ennui that it can inspire as seen through the eyes of rarefied types--ranging from upper-class schoolgirls to celebrities and their progeny--feeling at odds with lifestyles that most ordinary people could only dream about. As a result of this, Coppola has received criticism in some parts from people who accuse her of telling the same story over and over and asking viewers to feel sorry for characters who just aren't satisfied with being young, rich and beautiful. (All of this, of course, in addition to the usual gripes that she has only gotten to where she is today because of her legendary last name.) Inevitably, once "The Bling Ring" debuted at Cannes last months, there were a number of commentators who remarked that it was just more of the same and that rather than condemning her characters for their self-absorption, she was instead offering up a cinematic celebration of their shallowness.
If those critics had actually been paying attention to the film, they might have realized that whatever "The Bling Ring" may be, it is anything but an unquestioning celebration of vapid consumerism. It is, in fact, one of the more lacerating condemnations of that particular mindset and the celebrity-obsessed culture that it both feeds and feeds off of and it is all the more effective because it never blatantly announces itself as such a thing. While other filmmakers might have been tempted to push the material to outrageous extremes in order to make some kind of satirical point, Coppola is content to simply observe this particular world and trust that its absurdities will ring out loud and clear. In this case, any possible embellishments could hardly of improved on the reality of the situation. Take our peeks inside of Paris Hilton's house, for example. The home is such a gaudy tribute to herself--even the throw pillows are emblazoned with her visage--that it seems like a joke until you discover that these scenes were shot in Hilton's actual house with both her full permission and, one presumes, her own furnishings. Later on, while doing an interview before her trial, Nicki delivers a ridiculous-sounding monologue that makes her arrest sound like a calculated career move and again, what seems like the kind of hyperbole that might have made Paddy Chayefsky cringe turns out to be an almost verbatim quote from her character's real-life analogue. (Some of the names of the characters have been changed, though their on-screen crimes pretty much match up with what really happened.)
At the same time, Coppola does have a certain empathy for her characters and while she may not approve of their actions, she does at least understand from where they are coming. Unlike the people in her other films, her characters here are on the outside of the celebrity bubble looking longingly upon a lifestyle they have been conditioned to desire--can they really blamed for wanting to indulge, by whatever means necessary and however fleetingly, in that rarefied lifestyle? In the end, the material possessions that they have made off with are hardly the point--the victims barely even notice that they are missing at first and the kids wind up selling most of them from a table at the beach. No, fame is what they are really after and thanks to the media exploitation of their crimes, they have managed to attain a near-equal level of celebrity but at a grim price. In one of the strongest moments of the film, one of them is being interrogated in jail and, upon learning that the officer spoke to Lindsay Lohan herself as part of the investigation, the first thing she asks is "Really? What did Lindsay say?" It is a funny line, of course, but it is one delivered with such naked hopefulness that it becomes a strangely touching one as well.
As good as "The Bling Ring" is as a portrait of our current cultural mindset, it is even better just as an example of pure filmmaking. As with Coppola's previous efforts, this film is not exact driven by its story (even her one literary adaptation, "The Virgin Suicides," came from a book that was long on mood and short on plot) and while the lack of narrative drive may indeed frustrate some viewers, I personally find her approach to be infinitely more interesting. If you want a film that simply relates a story and tells you how to feel at every moment, there are dozens of filmmakers out there who can do that in a perfectly serviceable fashion. However, I daresay that few of them have her talent for creating the distinct moods that she has offered up each time out. Beautifully photographed by the late Harris Savides (whose last film this was) and Christopher Blauvelt and scored to a killer soundtrack featuring the like of Frank Ocean, Kanye West and M.I.A., she so effortlessly brings viewers into this world and the characters that populate it that I found myself thinking that in a perfect world, she might have been the ideal person to bring "The Great Gatsby" to the screen instead of Baz Luhrmann. The robbery sequences--each one shot in a different style--are stylish without being overblown and one, in which the robbery of Orlando Bloom's house witnessed silently from a nearby hilltop overlooking his glass-enclosed domicile, may prove to be the single most beautiful image to grace a movie screen this year. She even figure out a way to get around that most tiresome of cinematic cliches--the climactic courtroom scene--in such a clever, resourceful and stylish way that I wanted to cheer after seeing it.Outside of one bum speech delivered by Marc towards the end that hits the dramatic nail on the head just a little too hard for its own good, "The Bling Ring" is an all-around triumph. The performances are all stellar--of the standout, newcomer Katie Chang makes a strong first impression as Rebecca, Emma Watson is absolutely hilarious as the jaw-droppingly narcissistic Nicki and even the usually irritating Leslie Mann scores points as Nicki's even more self-absorbed mother, a woman who home-schools her kids with a lesson plan derived from "The Secret" and who is less concerned about her daughter's potential fate than in getting some face time for herself--it looks and sounds absolutely ravishing and it is alternately funny, shocking, weird and surprisingly thoughtful to boot. The end result is such an absolute must-see that even those celebrities who were actually victimized by the Bling Ring might get an unexpected kick out of it despite the understandable antipathy they might have towards it. Hell, in practically every case, "The Bling Ring" is a better entertainment that the things that made those celebrities famous in the first place.
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