by Matt Smith
Sofia Coppola has done something kind of miraculous and totally ballsy. She has dared to make a movie about a celebrity obsessed set of teens in which none of the teens are even remotely likable and are portrayed largely as the spoiled brat borderline sociopaths they are. The Bling Ring also manages to skillfully walk that very thin line between criticizing celebrity culture in the United States and totally succumbing to it in doing so. It’s a great film from an increasingly great filmmaker, and it should be considered required viewing this summer by any cinephile, regardless of whether or not you end up liking it or not.
With 2005’s Marie Antoinette, I think we got the first full-on Sofia Coppola film. Sure, more people admired her two previous films (and still do), The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, but those were both warm-ups for the full-on unleashing of celebrity obsessed criticisms to come. Marie Antoinette hit the nail right on the head with its champagne fizz concoction of the party lifestyle as decadence and decay, all while presenting Marie as a truly despicable young girl overwhelmed with and succumbing to her own wealth and power while absolutely ignoring the political realities facing her subjects.
Coppola injected the biopic with a bit of New Wave excess, combining Antoinette’s story with elements of the life of Annabella Lwin, the lead singer of Bow Wow Wow. The result was an idiosyncratic soundtrack and attitude that left some viewers confused, but which pulled off a direct link between the excess of the 1980s with which we are very familiar and the excessiveness of the lifestyle of the King and Queen that led to the French Revolution. It was a big gamble for a filmmaker whose previous success had arguably ridden on the coat tails of star Bill Murray’s resurgence into critical respectability in the 2000s. With Marie Antoinette she proved herself and established her personal aesthetic, which had only gotten scant representation previously: a pastel color palette, soft focus, and a dreamy sense of pacing that really lulls an audience into submission.
The Bling Ring, her newest effort, is based on a 2010 Vanity Fair article and follows a group of six Hollywood teenagers who break into the houses of celebrities and go shopping in their closets…I mean steal from them. The heists are vapid and meaningless, the teenagers come off as shells of human beings, and the soul of the film is its ability to emulate the fascination with celebrity that its characters have, but also distance the audience from that fascination to think critically about what we are being shown. Like Coppola’s last film Somewhere, we are shown that the celebrity lifestyle is nearly as meaningless and vapid as these teens think it is. After all, the whole reason they begin breaking in and stealing from celebs anyway is the reasoning that the stars have so much they’ll never miss it. And until they’re caught on camera, they’re right.
The group is led by Rebecca (Katie Chang), who initiates the first break-in at Paris Hilton’s house with Marc (Israel Broussard), the new kid at school. The pair of them get away with it and so they try another. And then another. Together with Rebecca’s friends Nicki (Emma Watson), Chloe (Claire Julien), and Sam (Taissa Farmiga), they break into more houses: Hilton’s again, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan. The group steals jewelry, watches, clothing, and even paintings off the walls.
The kids are all vapid and have virtually no personalities. This is especially evident in Nicki and Sam’s interactions with their mother Laurie (Leslie Mann). This trio of dingbats is so devoid of anything resembling rational thought it’s astonishing. Everything they do, including the girls’ homeschooling (lessons based on the book The Secret), is in the service of somehow obtaining fame and fortune. That this aspect of these characters isn’t even made up is even more amazing. Indeed, Nicki and her mother had a reality TV show after her conviction that is about as pointless and base a thing as I have ever seen.
Ultimately, though, that vacuousness is the whole point. These teens (cyphers for a lot of teens like them in many different cities) are without purpose, guidance or even a semblance of a goal. They are tied to their iPhones, their music, their social cliques in ways that even I wouldn’t have imagined a mere ten years ago. They do nothing without the internet – it’s how they even figure out who’s not going to be at home so they can conduct their late-night shopping sprees.
They’re all caught because they are vain and stupid, just like any set of criminals. The group never attempts to hide their identities and are eventually identified off of security camera footage. Figures the one thing they never thought about bringing them down would be the most obvious to anyone who didn’t have their head up their ass. Why didn’t it ever occur to them that the houses would have security systems of some sort? Just because Paris Hilton leaves her door unlocked and others leave keys under their door mats like it’s the 1950s? I don’t even do that, and I have almost nothing to protect.
But maybe that’s the point, too. It doesn’t matter how much bling is jacked from the celebs because they’ll always get more, so why bother even turning the lock when you’re off jet-setting around the world?
I get the allure of what the kids are doing, I really do. It’s the thrill of pulling it off – the adrenaline rush, the prospect of getting caught – as much as it is the bounty that drives them to repeatedly break into peoples’ homes and post about their exploits and their having acquired extremely rare pieces of jewelry and designer clothing. There is a dreaminess in the act as much as the film itself. Coppola is the perfect filmmaker for this subject, and here she’s crafted a masterpiece of our time that I guarantee will hold up years and decades from now.
I really loved The Bling Ring. Not because of the characters, and not because I identify with the plot, nor do I have an obsession with celebrities, but because the film is so creative and impeccably made. Emma Watson is fantastic, and this role should cement her as a major actress if she wasn’t already. The soundtrack is also fantastic. With songs from Sleigh Bells, Rick Ross, Kanye West, Deadmau5, Can and M.I.A., it really works in tandem thematically to give a sense of the world the kids were living in, going to clubs and partying and acting like their own social circle’s celebrities.
Sofia Coppola has now made three films in a row that are flat-out fantastic. That the two before Marie Antoinette are also cult hits and considered classics in their own rights should be enough for us all to be interested in what she’s got coming next. I’m on board. No one in Hollywood is making the cinema she is interested in making, and that’s exciting.
5 out of 5 stars.