On the balance of probabilities, Sofia Coppola‘s fifth feature is likely to be one of her most commercial; not only is it based on true events (in more certain terms than her edgy if sketchy Marie Antoinette), but the real life tale’s rooting in the cult of celebrity will almost certainly ensure that it earns its fair share of fans. Disappointing it is, then, that Coppola can’t wring much of interest out of the people behind the story, while the eminent appeal of Emma Watson in yet another boundary-pushing, post-Harry Potter presence is almost completely squandered in a throwaway supporting role.
Though The Bling Ring is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination, it is still very much the sort of feature audiences would expect from the director, crowded with an indie rock soundtrack and featuring long, deliberate takes in order to focus on the existential ennui of the characters therein.
Despite doing little with them, it is the characters which Coppola peculiarly decides to focus on instead of the facts of the case itself. The titular collective of criminals is headed by Rebecca (Katie Chang), who leads her friends to the homes of their favorite celebrities to make off with their most expensive and illusive wares.
The key theme of Coppola’s film is aspiration, as Rebecca and her young clique dream of having the celebrity lifestyle, be it by way of the expensive clothes they’ve seen on red carpet shows, or more subtly, the pill addictions and custodial sentences that inevitably follow their more wayward heroes. The mindset of the girls makes for an easy contrast with the new kid on the block, Marc (Israel Broussard), at least at first, before he too gets pulled into this world in his quest for acceptance (and a very obvious attraction to Rebecca).
Ostensibly, the problem with The Bling Ring is that it is very nearly as vapid as the people that it depicts; the film’s subversive bent extends only so far, instead leaning too often on a one-note gag relating to how naive and celebrity-obsessed these coddled kids are. Cameos from both Kirsten Dunst and Paris Hilton are woefully perfunctory, though the latter at least offers the perverse pleasure of a thorough mockery, seemingly without Hilton’s knowledge.
After the initial set-up, however, the celebrity house-raiding becomes repetitive, and the thinly-drawn characters simply don’t carry enough weight to see us through; they are empty shells without a significant component attached to render them or the film particularly worthwhile in spite of a few inspired moments. Indeed, biting humur does arise on occasion – Leslie Mann, playing the mother of Emma Watson’s Nicki, chirpily quips, “Time for your Aderall!”, while wry remarks about celebrity complacency undeniably hit the mark. Furthermore, the occasional flirtation with danger – a waving gun and lines of cocaine – do create some brief moments of palpable tension, making us wonder for a time just how closely Coppola is going to adapt the real events.
As for the perspectives of the Ring themselves, these are conveyed largely through direct interviews to camera, though generally end up giving too much away. That thin layer of subtlety covering the superficial whole is consequently stripped away; the piece could have instead sustained as a satire of the cult of celebrity, but clearly has its attentions focused elsewhere.
On the plus side, the pic is nicely shot by Christopher Blauvelt and the late Harris Savides – who receives a dedicatory credit – and the performances generally exceed the material. The almost completely unknown Katie Chang will certainly see her stock rise considerably in light of the good work she does here, while Broussard somewhat echoes a young Patrick Fugit, though hopefully won’t disappear quite as surreptitiously.
Watson, meanwhile, has been the lynch-pin of the film’s marketing campaign, though is strangely relegated to a mirthless supporting role. After sporting an impressive American accent in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, here it fleets rather dispiritingly between acceptably broad and distractingly affected. Often, her Nikki simply sounds too self-conscious to be truly convincing.
Though the narrative arc smacks of media-lampooning classics such as Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, this film achieves neither the same level of emotional intensity nor its thematic complexity. The patent overuse of interview-style segments to hammer the exposition home gives every sliver of subtext away, though the film’s ending punchline is undeniably a winner.
The muted minimalism of Lost in Translation and Somewhere is rarely seen in The Bling Ring, an enticing enough premise that is nevertheless shot through with the bare minimum level of engagement by the esteemed director, despite a litany of committed performances.
The Upside: Coppola’s film is stylishly lensed, and the currrency of the narrative will no doubt be appealing to teenage audiences.
The Downside: The director eschews the possibility to probe deep into the dark heart of celebrity obsession in favor of a surface-deep travelogue of soulless Californians that bears few rewards.
On the Side: Coppola had the young stars try their hand at (a fake) burglary before shooting to note what mistakes they’d make.