Sofia Coppola is an undeniably talented filmmaker, but she’s one with a fairly limited milieu. Her films always tend to be about the secret pain of privileged people whose decadent lifestyle is matched only by the emptiness at their cores. When she’s on her A-game that material can be fascinating and strike an unexpectedly universal chord (Lost in Translation). When it’s off, her movies can feel as dull as their empty headed/hearted protagonists (Marie Antoinette). Thankfully, her latest effort The Bling Ring falls comfortably into the first category. It makes sense, if someone was going to make a movie about the bizarre true story of a handful of celebrity obsessed and over-privileged LA high school kids who broke into trash celebrity homes to steal their clothes thanks to Google and a perverse sense of entitlement, it should be her. Only Coppola could take that material and not only make it as funny as should be, but craft it into as poignant a study of America’s poisonous celebrity obsession as it needs to be.
The film opens with a nightfall robbery as a collection of teens quietly break into a celebrity’s home and fill up their Hello Kitty backpacks and Prada purses with clothing, jewelry, and cash from an unnamed celebrity who may or may not even notice it’s gone. From there, we flashback and are introduced to Marc (Israel Broussard), a troubled teen whose sent to an LA dropout high school full of kids who got there only after expulsion. He soon makes friends and becomes infatuated with the empty beauty Rebecca (Katie Chang). They bound over a shared love of casual theft and celebrity gossip, starting small with petty crimes like taking cash out of unlocked cars and using it for Bell Air shopping sprees. Soon that isn’t enough. After finding out Paris Hilton will be out of town for some predictably stupid reason, they track down her address on Google Maps and break into her mansion to steal some stuff and ogle her expensive lifestyle. The celeb heisting becomes a hobby for the duo and soon they add a small gang of fellow celeb-robbers including a hilarious bubble-headed teen (Emma Watson) whose mother (Leslie Mann) home schools her and her sisters based on the The Secret. The group rob the likes of Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, and Megan Fox, before inevitably getting caught and serving time for being celebrity obsessed morons.
In an age of TMZ stalker television and celebrity bloggers like Perez Hilton, the collective American obsession with treating TV fame like royalty has spiraled completely out of control. The fact that it’s created a generation of kids who idolize someone like Paris Hilton is pathetic and the fact that the media would turn similar kids who rob her into brief celebrities themselves is even more disturbing. None of that is lost on Coppola whose film is never heavy handed in delivering it’s message, but gets it all across clearly by depicting the story honestly. The cast she’s collected are all perfect at presenting this current brand of lost youth and even if there is an occasional wooden line reading, it indeliberately fits the characters’ vacant nature. Emma Watson might take a surprisingly small role, but it is the best in the film. Her character is a hilarious airhead with skewed values and wonderful way with misplaced words. She’s a comedy highlight along with the dependently hilarious Leslie Mann, but thankfully no one else in the cast leans on the comedy button too hard. There’s a serious and relevant core to The Bling Ring that Coppola never ignores. Even when what happens in the frame might be humorous, she shoots the material rather beautifully in the style an emotionally detached art film.
This concept might make for satire, but the fact that it’s real adds a layer of tragedy. Coppola uses her cameras to flaunt the ritzy lifestyles of the rich and famous and the illicit thrills her characters get out of merely pretending to live the lives they idolize. Yet, all the scenes play long and real, pausing for awkward silences and rarely rattling through story beats for the sake of screenplay structure. By lingering just a little too long on these vapid kids and their late night activities, a certain emotional emptiness emerges. When one robbery is staged in a single, glorious take slowly zooming in on a house, the effect both mimics the unseen voyeurism of a security camera and lingers long enough that any sense cinematic heist joy is wiped away from the petty n’ pathetic robbery.
Coppola isn’t so cynical as to despise her characters, they are all presently warmly and amusingly through naturalistic performance. But, she very much has a perspective on this material and delivers a statement. It would be nice to say that we live in a world where The Bling Ring would feel like a frivolous little trifle about LA excess, but sadly celebrity obsession culture has become so rampant that Coppola’s latest movie almost feels like fable that should be shown to every teen who ever Googled “Lohan, hot” on their iPhone. There’s something deeply amusing about the fact that the movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where the entire audience wandered in through a see of paparazzi who make a living off of the very themes the movie condemns. I’m sure the irony wasn’t lost on Coppola and hopefully she’s got more to say on the subject because sadly the world needs to hear it right now.