“We had so many beautiful, gorgeous things.” One of the main characters in The Bling Ring says this when describing the spoils of the crime sprees in which he and his friends casually engage as a distraction from homework and dull parties. He’s a high schooler, which means he’s a human being devoid of any real goals or understanding of the world, but he’s got one true personality trait: he wants. Clothes, money, success, fame, popularity, friends, world domination, and awareness of the conquest. He wants it all. A generation ago, his path to glory might have involved rebellion; two generations, and he’d have aspired for total revolution. But instead, his desires line up almost perfectly with those of what used to be cinematic villains. He and his friends want to sell out, cash in, and revel in excess. The American dream is just to keep dreaming, to keep building a world in which we’re kings and queens, worshipped simply for being alive. The Bling Ring plays like a morally inverted version of Wall Street: bad things happen, but nobody seems to mind.
Sofia Coppola’s latest film is based on real events that were chronicled in a Vanity Fair story, and like classical reportage, it doesn’t bury the lede. We’re told up front that the characters who perpetrate crimes we haven’t seen yet will be caught. This isn’t a movie about crime and punishment, and it’s not even really one about celebrity culture. It’s about growing up bored and moneyed, and about not knowing what else to do with yourself. The movie doesn’t break any kind of ground here, but then, that’s kind of the whole point. Kids have always been disaffected; these characters just go slightly beyond the typical levels of illegal behavior as a way to feel older and more important. They’re not immoral, acting against an understood code; they’re amoral, floating outside the rules and trying on scarves. You aren’t supposed to like or pity them, and indeed, you won’t.
Coppola, who wrote and directed, anchors her story in Marc (Israel Broussard), a quiet teen who’s having issues fitting in at his alternative high school in California. He befriends Rebecca (Katie Chang) and finds himself gradually drawn into a clique of girls who all aspire to celebrity but don’t realize that fame is usually the byproduct of work, not its central goal. They want to be famous for no reason, which is why they idolize people who are also famous for no reason, like Paris Hilton. They’re obsessed with her style and tabloid exploits. Rebecca is already a low-level criminal when Marc meets her — at parties, she’ll slip out and investigate cars on the street, stealing from those she finds unlocked — so she leverages her love of all things Paris to take things up a notch. Checking sites like TMZ to make sure Paris is out of town at a party or premiere, Rebecca and Marc look up Paris’s address online and then sneak into her house. They make off with some cash and goods, brag to their friends, and eventually start returning on a regular basis. From there, it’s only natural that they try to break into other celebrity homes.
Coppola nails the existential boredom of being a teen, specifically because these kids have no problem to solve and nowhere to go. One of the girls, Nicki (Emma Watson), is home-schooled by her mother (Leslie Mann) with a curriculum that relies mostly on The Secret and regular smoothies. Nobody needs money. Nobody’s beaten or homeless or desperate to succeed at a chosen venture. They just comfortably exist, so they gravitate toward adult celebrities who do the same.
I find myself struggling in the aftermath of the film to connect with it in any real way, which is always the danger with chronicling characters who place such a premium on total indulgence and the ability to rationalize any decision as merely one more important step on a journey directed by karma. Coppola’s always been great at capturing this kind of stuck-in-cement dissociation, but she’s at her best when the story finds a way to comment on that dissociation through character growth, changes in plot, and so on. The Virgin Suicides worked so well because it was the story of an outsider trying to understand a girl who appeared to be an empty vessel; The Bling Ring is just a pretty picture of the vessel. Coppola’s latest film has a consistency of tone that’s sometimes eluded her, but it’s also one of her least pleasing simply because she doesn’t do much to comment on the situation or add anything to the story. The names have been changed, but the deeds haven’t, so the film never quite finds its own legs.
It looks great, though. Coppola’s bright white-pink look at SoCal makes for airy compositions and gently flowing scenes, and she juxtaposes the dream lives of the central characters with resolutely ordinary shots of their surroundings: normal-looking parties at average capacity, not the blowouts that only exist in the movies; courtrooms built with florescent lights and cheap paneling. She’s assembled a solid cast, too, especially with Watson as Nicki. Watson so totally nails the vapid and self-justifying tone of a moneyed teen, her speech peppered with randomly ascending tones and declarations of future stardom, that she becomes magnetic in her total commitment to vapidity. Yet there’s a kind of unfortunate bluntness to the film, almost an unwillingness to dig any deeper, that seems to mirror the story’s origin as a magazine feature. Coppola covers the requisite bases and displays a mastery of vibe, but there’s not quite enough separating the tale from the teller here. The Bling Ring is full of so many beautiful, gorgeous things. But they won’t belong to you, and you won’t be able to keep them.