“The Bling Ring” Needs More Bling

Bling Ring

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013)

The most horrifying aspect of writer/director Sofia Coppola’s new film, for me, is not the celebrity-obsessed nature of the crimes being perpetrated by young and vacuous denizens of “The Valley,” nor the very extreme nature of that vacuity, but rather the fact that three of the girls in the media-dubbed “Bling Ring” (this is based on a true story) are being homeschooled by their mother, played by Leslie Mann, and that her lessons for them, from what we see in a few key scenes, consist of vapid posterized bowdlerizations of the already two-dimensional platitudes of The Secret. Is this part of the movie also based on actual events? If so, that scares me more than anything I’ve seen on screen in a good while. Are there really children out there being taught from the textbook of Rhonda Byrne’s self-help manual, rather than from some kind of official curriculum? Good luck, America!

This movie, given that rotten core at the center of its story, could have been such a wonderful indictment of materialism and superficiality run wild. Instead, it’s just kind of dull. Coppola never quite finds her stride nor the right tone with which to handle her material. Just when we should be reveling in the grotesque glory of the lifestyle of the rich, stupid and still-wanting-more, we’re watching slow-motion shots of blank faces. I can see what she’s trying to do with that (there’s nothing going on behind those eyes), but compelling cinema it does not make. Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was a mess, but it had pizzazz and flair, and that’s what’s missing here. The Bling Ring needs more bling.

The film tells the story of Rebecca, Mark, Chloe, Nicki, Sam and Emily (those last three are the home-schooled ones), played by Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Claire Julien, Emma Watson (i.e., Hermione Granger), Taissa Farmiga (younger sister of Vera), and Georgia Rock. They are all high school students in the Valley, from wealthy and inattentive families. One day, Rebecca convinces her new best pal, Mark, to go with her to Paris Hilton’s house (the address of which they find easily on the web) while the star is away (a fact which they discover through another quick internet search). Once there, they find her key under the front door mat, no alarm (we learn in this film that celebrities are terrible at home security), and proceed to go through her stuff, play with her dog, try on her clothes (Mark likes women’s outfits, especially shoes, as well), before grabbing as much as they can carry and then leaving the same way they can. Soon, their friends are joining them on these nighttime escapades, as they ransack the homes of Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox, Rachel Bilson and Audrina Patridge, among others. Eventually – because even though the celebrities they rob have no alarm systems, they do have security cameras – they are caught, tried and sentenced. The end.

OK, not quite. It’s a little more interesting than that. First of all, Rebecca and Mark slowly build up to their Paris Hilton visitation by starting with breaking into cars and then robbing the home of a friend of Mark’s. Secondly, once they start gathering all of their “bling,” they can’t keep themselves from flaunting it, posting photo after photo after photo on social media, and telling all of their other friends about their exploits. For they crave a share of the celebrity on which they prey, as well. In fact, Nicki (Emma Watson) is an aspiring model, and when we see her at the end of the movie, post-jail, she is on TV, using her “alleged crime” (in spite of time served, she refuses to admit her culpability) to promote herself.

But otherwise the filmmaking gets in the way. I would have preferred that Coppola shoot this as a reality TV show, with all of the annoying bells and whistles that go along with that, much as Oliver Stone did with the first 15 minutes (the most interesting part) of his Natural Born Killers, when he used the trappings of sitcoms as the backdrop for the start of Woody Harrelson’s killing spree. Coppola does intersperse a few confessional interviews (which, in turns out, are from the research that a Vanity Fair reporter is doing for the article this movie is based on) here and there, but she does it halfheartedly. There’s no commitment to that style (because there is no consistent style). It’s too bad. Coppola has made two films that did show great consistency – as well as mastery – of tone: The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. So she’s capable of great work. This film isn’t it, however.

The young actors, as well as Leslie Mann, are all pretty solid, and between this, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and This Is the End, it has been fun to watch Ms. Watson move beyond her Harry Potter roles (she does have a problem not letting her English accent slip in, however). The movie is not an absolute loss. It’s just way too much Muk Luk and not nearly enough Louboutin.

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