‘The Bling Ring’ review: Fame monsters
The basic structure of a successful story is typically built upon the relationship between two distinct entities: a hero and a villain. Attempting to balance the forces of good and evil makes for compelling tension and suspense to keep the audience engaged, as the action surrounding the primary characters and their behavior helps supplement a larger theme. When the contrast between the protagonist and antagonist is presented with purposeful ambiguity, however, viewers are left to interpret the story’s message without the aid of clearly defined narrative tools.
Such is the case with Sofia Coppola’s latest directorial effort, The Bling Ring, a woefully deft and acerbically funny examination of our culture’s obsession with fame and material worth that neither glamorizes nor scorns the conduct of its central figures. Based on a real gang of troubled, vapid and borderline sociopathic Los Angeles teenagers and their high-profile exploits robbing celebrity mansions, Coppola is smart to present The Bling Ring from a mostly objective standpoint and allow the disturbing social commentary to speak for itself. No one with any tangible breadth of mental and emotional stability would view these narcissistic kleptomaniacs as even likeable, much less heroes, but against the backdrop of an enabling environment rife with adoring peers and clueless parental figures, labeling them as villains doesn’t seem quite right, either.
The plot unfolds with a largely non-linear trajectory by inserting numerous flash-forwards to offer either reflective context or non-sequitur intrigue to the present moment. Several scenes are repeated at different points in the film to emphasize the deepening perspective gained while witnessing these kids abandon any understanding of reality, consequences and the value of life beyond a price tag. Our first glimpse of the titular teens catches them within the frame of a surveillance lens at a residential location. They’re walking backwards up the driveway in order to avoid revealing their faces, a notably ironic precaution considering they later proceed to show off their lifted loot at every possible opportunity. Whether wearing stolen designer duds like a badge of honor around Hollywood hotspots or plastering the internet with ubiquitous, insipid photographs of themselves holding fanned wads of fingered cash, the Bling Ring refuses to acknowledge any scruples about how they acquired these things. All that matters, at least to them, is that they did.
The most discernibly human of the bunch is shy, nervous Marc (Israel Broussard), an underachieving clotheshorse who initially hides under a normal-kid uniform of jeans and hoodies to conceal his passion and talent for fashion. Pondering his low self-esteem, Marc sighs and says, “I know I’m not ugly, but I don’t have an A-list face.” He’s been transferred to a new high school in an affluent Valley suburb after accruing too many absences at his previous campus, an achievement his parents have attempted to combat with purely pharmaceutical tactics. When poised, polished cool girl Rebecca (Katie Chang) takes him under her wing, Marc believes he’s finally found a kindred spirit around whom he can finally be himself. The two bond over their mutual love for high-end labels and soon begin engaging in petty theft together. Marc is fascinated by the collected confidence Rebecca displays while rummaging through unlocked cars in their neighborhood, swiping wallets and drugs with a remarkably entitled nonchalance, but she already has her sights set on bigger things. After the two burgle the home of a classmate whom Marc knew was out of town, Rebecca posits the idea of pulling the same trick on the glitterati.
Using hilariously basic research methods to find out celebrities’ addresses and when they’ll be safely away shooting a movie or attending a publicity event, Marc and Rebecca first descend upon Paris Hilton’s sprawling Hollywood Hills estate with alarming ease. She’s left a key under the doormat. Yes, really. Even Marc and Rebecca can’t believe their luck. The two rummage through the staggering property, agog at the sheer magnitude of exclusive and expensive merchandise bursting from every nook and cranny. They nab plenty, but leave just enough behind to remain undetected and insure a return visit. Marc and Rebecca soon enlist a select few pals to join their ultimately doomed pursuit of the status, power and adoration their targets emulate, and the gang eventually hits the houses of Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, Audrina Patridge, Megan Fox and Lindsay Lohan, amassing a final stash worth more than $3 million before the police finally catch on.
Free-spirited stoner Chloe (Claire Julien) is a relatively benign fringe participant, but childhood friends and aspiring models Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) make for a cackling duo of delusional grandeur that rounds out The Bling Ring with the kind of satirical irreverence that leaves you unsure whether their ridiculous antics are meant to amuse or enrage. Nicki even tells reporters outside the courtroom she considers the experience “a learning lesson” that could ultimately prepare her for a future in philanthropy or politics. “I want to lead a country one day, for all I know,” she declares. Wow. While the film itself seems void of any moral center or real profundity, the spectrum of detectable archetypes within such a shallow set of characters is rather impressive considering the intentional lack of depth with which they’re presented. Coppola adapted her script from Nancy Jo Sales’ 2010 Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” and painted the kids in a similarly empty light as the author, but wisely adopted her own signature thoughtful tone to insert a dreamlike quality to the movie that offsets the genuine unpleasantness of the subject matter.
Coppola’s use of atmosphere to help illustrate the more fantastical nature of the gang’s reckless journey is also courtesy of master cinematographer Harris Savides, who sadly died during production. The aesthetic softness of his work is nicely juxtaposed with Sarah Flack’s definitive editing style that keeps the film moving at a rollicking pace despite its languid production design. As for the bling itself, Hilton opened up her actual home and its contents for filming, a notion that perhaps offers more insight on humans’ increasing desperation for social relevance than does chronicling the criminal exploits of spoiled teenagers. Who would bother breaking into Audrina Patridge’s house today? Exactly.
The Bling Ring is a smart and sobering study of modern materialism and tabloid culture that may or may not suffer from its resistance to further explore the story’s potential impact on future generations. Despite the movie’s numerous laughs, the humor is derived more from discomfort than pleasure. It might be impossible to feel sorry for any of the young thieves depicted in Coppola’s teenage wasteland, but it’s equally difficult to be satisfied when they finally get their comeuppance. Justice is only served when true villains are punished for their crimes. While the kids behind the Bling Ring certainly deserve to face the consequences of their actions, it’s hard to shake the sinking feeling they didn’t have to end up being the bad guys in the first place.
Images courtesy of A24 Films.
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