Sofia Coppola's look at larcenous teen celebrity wannabes captures their splashy crime spree but remains as resolutely shallow as its protagonists
“The Bling Ring” calls to mind the old joke about non-dairy creamer: We know what it isn't, but what is it?
Writer-director Sofia Coppola, who examined the price of fame from the inside in her last film, “Somewhere,” turns her gaze to the wealthy L.A. suburb of Calabasas, where a group of fame-obsessed teens launched a crime spree that had them breaking into the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Megan Fox and Orlando Bloom and making off with cash, jewelry, clothes and accessories.
Fans of Coppola's cool, detached style can predict that she doesn't use this true story as a launching pad for satire, but she doesn't do anything else with the material. This isn't a character study, or an examination of the effects of young people being force-fed a materialistic lifestyle, or a condemnation of amoral youth lacking for guidance. She neither explains nor excuses nor extols nor excoriates these kids, which would be fine, but she doesn't really examine them either.
Shy Marc (Israel Broussard) is a nerdy gay loner until he becomes friendly with classmate Rebecca (Katie Chang) over their shared obsessions with fashion and celebrities. She's also good at breaking into houses and checking unlocked cars for what game-show announcers call “cash and prizes,” and eventually all of their interests come together when they read that Paris Hilton's going to be in Vegas for a club opening.
They find Hilton's address on Google, sneak in, and indulge themselves in her ridiculously decadent treasure-trove of stuff, taking a few souvenirs with them on their way out. (Hilton allowed Coppola to film her real residence.) Marc and Rebecca share the news with their friends Nicki (Emma Watson), Sam (Taissa Farmiga, “Higher Ground”) and Chloe (Claire Julien), and soon they're all raiding Hilton's closet and hanging out in her nightclub room whenever she's out of town.
Their break-ins diversify, with other stars’ homes becoming targets. They hang out in nightclubs, where everyone admires what Marc calls the “beautiful things” they've stolen, and they go shopping at Kitson. Drugs and alcohol are consumed. And eventually, they get caught. (None of these houses have alarms, apparently, but many of them have security cameras.) And then the girls turn on each other. And then they get sentenced. The end.
Coppola, working from a Vanity Fair article, makes the occasional satirical lob, from Marc's goal to create a “lifestyle brand” to Nicki's mother Laurie (Leslie Mann) home-schooling with generous doses of Adderall and The Secret, but “The Bling Ring” never seems to have much to say about why these kids did what they did, and what any of it means in a larger context.
There's some skillful filmmaking, to be sure – Coppola creates moments of palpable tension when, say, one of these dingbat kids drives a stolen car while drunk or when Sam waves around a loaded weapon they found under Megan Fox's bed.
The late cinematographer Harris Savides – this is his last film, and it's dedicated to him – creates a singularly memorable sequence in which the Patridge break-in is filmed as one uninterrupted take in wide shot. It's a scene that's all the more effective for being filmed in one of those boxy L.A. houses that's more wall than window, as well as for jolting the movie out of its repetitive monotony. (If said repetition was meant as a point, it's not working.)
The cast delivers what it can under the circumstances, with Watson and Mann stealing the show with their characters’ ludicrous, pageant-ready platitudes, but for both the performances and for the film itself, there's no there there.
When Coppola stages a shot of the kids strutting down Rodeo Drive in slo-mo, I almost expected the reveal to be that everyone else around them was walking in regular speed. These kids lived their lives as though someone was filming them – and they were, in fact, the subject of an E! reality show, “Pretty Wild,” which is never mentioned here.
If nothing else, however, “The Bling Ring” confirms that none of them deserved the camera time.