A film review by Craig J. Koban August 8, 2013

THE BLING RING jj
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2013, R, 112 mins.

 

Emma Watson as Nicki  /  Stacy Edwards as Debbie  /  Israel Broussard as Marc  /  Taissa Farmiga as Sam  /  Erin Daniels as Shannon  /  Gavin Rossdale as Ricky  /  Leslie Mann as Nicki's Mom  /  Katie Chang as Rebecca  /  Claire Julien as Chloe  /  Georgia Rock as Emily  /  Carlos Miranda as Rob

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola’s THE BLING RING – her fifth film as a director – challenges viewers with one thorny question: Can a movie about unrelentingly shallow, self-centered, and materialistically obsessed teen crooks be intrinsically interesting on any level?  

The young adults that populate this film – inspired by true events – care about virtually nothing beyond there own vanity and fanatical imperatives to accumulate fashions and consumer goods while worshipping at the alters of the celebrities that they prop up as societal gods.  THE BLING RING focuses on a generation of adolescents that love celebrities not because of their skills or achievements, but mostly for the fact that they are celebrities in the public eye.  In this way, THE BLING RING is successful, I guess, at relaying the sanctimonious microcosm of this odiously unsavory social network. 

Yet, having said all of that, Coppola’s film shows the pathetic superficiality of this culture while never really directly commenting on it.  There is no doubt that she utterly nails the portrayal of her soulless and needlessly egocentric characters, but you never really gain an overpowering sense that she has anything critical to say about their lifestyles of wanton, almost hedonistic material-possession excess.  That is not to say that Coppola finds this culture endearing or sympathetic; hardly, but she nonetheless fails at providing any type of ethical critique of these truly dislikeable social fiends.  In a ironic manner, THE BLING RING is kind of a shallow film about shallow people; more often than not, you kind of feel that the director is so drawn into this sleazy world that she seems to be almost vicariously living through their criminal adventures with them.  The lack of a critical edge in the film is as sad as its portrait of Valley Girl narcissism.   

The film is, as stated, inspired by the reality-based case - and, in turn, on Nancy Jo Sales’ wonderfully titled 2010 Vanity Fair article THE SUSPECTS WORE LOUBOUTINS - of a group of fame-seeking Californian teens that – between 2008 and 2009 – burglarized the homes of several mega-famous Hollywood celebrities (the media gave them the monikers of “The Hollywood Hills Burglar Bunch” and “The Bling Ring”).  In all, they stole up to $3 million worth of cash, jewellery, and personal belongings.  Some of the celebs in question included the likes of Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom, and Megan Fox.  Astoundingly, the young crooks were never caught during their initial crimes and, even more incredulously, posted pictures on their Facebook pages of their scores and often spent the stolen money at the same nightclubs that the celebrities they stole from frequented.  Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. 

 

 

The fictional side of the film, though, is that the real identities of these moronic individuals have been protected.  THE BLING RING introduces us to its five teen criminals, the first being the leader, of sorts, Rebecca (Katie Chang), who lives with her strict Korean immigrant family, but fantasizes daily of living a life of regal and extravagant material pleasures.  Then there is her newly acquired BFF, a new boy at her school named Marc (Israel Broussard), who on his first few days does not fit in until Rebecca ensnares him into her tight inner circle.  In this circle are Chloe (Claire Julien), Nikki (Emma Watson) and her sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga, younger sister of Vera), all of whom are just as gung-ho about attaining everything from Cartier, Prada, and Burberry to add to their closets.  With the help of the tech savvy Marc, this Bling Ring is able to deduce where celebrities live and when they are going to be out of town, which will consequently assist them with visiting their homes, so to speak, and enter them uninvited. 

Astoundingly, the homes that they initially prey upon have no apparent alarm systems, no guard dogs, and no security on site, which makes it ever-so-easy for the crew to slip in and out – while taking whatever they want out of the homes – without being detected.  Unfortunately, the ravenous desires to continue their crime sprees do catch up with them, as one star’s security camera finally catches them in the act with some decent shots of their unmasked faces.  It is at this point when the Bling Ring's fun times begin to seriously implode, leaving a brush with the law seeming like an inevitable reality. 

I can see what Coppola is aspiring to achieve in THE BLING RING.  She wants to invite us into this parade of grotesque celebrity mania that pollutes so many young souls, to the point where they will stop at nothing to duplicate the lifestyles of those they worship and, paradoxically enough, rob.  The film also rightfully shows these deplorable kids as those that freakishly have very little remorse or fear of consequences for their actions.  All they want is to accumulate more – more fashions, more jewels, more money, and ultimately more fame – without actually working a minute to achieve such goals.  In many ways, THE BLING RING is absolutely chilling to endure just as, say, the recently released SPRING BREAKERS was for how it cast a nihilistic light over a culture of young people that care about nothing but themselves and their own instant gratification. 

There have been memorable and masterful films made about toxically dislikeable people.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with films that are about loathsome characters doing unthinkably loathsome things.  Yet, THE BLING RING seems more about propping up its despicable personas for sensationalistic effect without really probing the real reasons behind their heartless crimes.  Again, Coppola successfully shows what these kids covet, but never seems to evaluate them for it.  She seems to sit back with critical uncertainty and at an annoyingly safe distance instead of satirically going for the jugular of her subjects and eviscerating them.  The film almost has a fetishistic admiration for the lifestyles of the famous people that the ring steals from, which left me feeling even colder as the story progressed.  Ultimately, there’s no entry point of empathy or understanding for the victims or the perpetrators: I cared little for the celebs that have the money to replace what was taken from them and, yes, had essentially zero sympathy for the teen cretins, all pretty much one-dimensionally developed without any redeeming qualities.  

THE BLING RING has its pleasures, like a propulsive rock and pop soundtrack that permeates individual moments on the film, and Coppola creates small little visual vignettes of bravura invention, like, for instance, one virtuoso sequence – done with one static camera setup, a slow zoom and without cuts – that shows the gang robbing a glass-adorned house on the Hollywood Hills (the late, great Harris Savides’s cinematography is the real star here).  Some of the performances are strong too, like Emma Watson’s turn as her megalomaniacal, short-skirt wearing, and cell phone fanatical teen witch that desperately wants her own life to be one big reality show.  Leslie Mann also shows up in a smashingly funny turn playing Watson’s New Agey, home school teaching mother.   THE BLING RING, again, embraces its trashy culture with an enthusiastic aplomb.  Yet, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically for its own good.

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