As a filmmaker, Sofia Coppola has mused over the subject of celebrity with movies about historical figures (Marie Antoinette), pined-after small-town sisters (The Virgin Suicides), and actors living their lives out of luxury suites (Lost in Translation and Somewhere). With the latter films seeming especially “insider” in nature, the industry princess’s work shows that she writes what she knows, and it implies she’s an ideal fit to helm The Bling Ring, a fact-based tale about L.A. teens who robbed the houses of socialites and celebrities, and became top-story fodder for the likes of TMZ circa 2009. Coppola’s last movie, Somewhere, was her most brazenly esoteric, showing her trademark rebel streak veer headlong into irksomely arty territory. Though set in the same world of palm trees and sun-drenched architecture, The Bling Ring couldn’t be more of a departure, decidedly ditching esotericism and reveling in the accessibly superficial. The film is watchable as a tongue-in-cheek crime-spree romp, but Coppola’s signature insider musings feel uncharacteristically wasted, and she directs as if she’s grasping for things to plumb. In other words, what you see in this film’s marketing (cars, couture, and shallow celeb-o-philia) is more or less all you get.
For those unfamiliar with Nancy Jo Sales’s Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” which served as the skeleton of Coppola’s script (names were changed for the film), the story concerns a group of angsty Angelenos who watch the minutes tick by as they yearn for parties, status, and absurdly pricey swag. Rebecca (Katie Chang), Chloe (Claire Julien), and Marc (Israel Brouchard) attend an alternative high school after prior expulsions, while Nicki (Emma Watson) and live-in sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) are home-schooled by Nicki’s clueless mom, Laurie (Leslie Mann), who carries around The Secret as a master text. If that last bit sounds like a lazy cliché, despite the fact that this film is set when Rhonda Byrne’s bestseller was still in vogue, it feels like one too. And the same goes for Laurie’s daily “Time for your Adderrall!” announcements, even though reports say most of these kids were indeed on mood stabilizers and anti-depressants. Coppola has her facts straight, from the girls freebasing Oxycontin to Nicki’s kid sister gaining access to Megan Fox’s house through a dog door, but she seems curiously unmotivated to bring full analysis or provocation to her themes, leaving The Bling Ring feeling like a disappointingly toothless satire (a rote, chronology-breaking framing device doesn’t help either).
The characters, including Marc (whose homosexuality is a non-issue beyond his own insecurities), bond over their magazine-chic desires (“I want my own fashion line,” “I want a lifestyle brand”), and with a little help from Google Earth, they start gaining preposterously simple access to the homes of Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, and others. As the Bling Ringers raid these sprawling manses for McQueen sunglasses, Alaia dresses, and Birkin bags, Coppola responds with a propulsive collage of modern pop iconography, filling the screen with paparazzi shots, step-and-repeat footage, mock Facebook pages, and breathless montages of red-carpet stars who strut through these teenagers’ hollow dreams. Like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (of which this film is most certainly a piece, right down to a girl tauntingly sexualizing a pistol), Coppola presents a cautionary tale of aural and visual aggression, backing her vast buffet of all-corrupting merchandise with floor-shaking tracks like Sleigh Bells’ “Crown on the Ground.” But whereas Korine’s film left room for an eerie wealth of implication, Coppola’s main thrust grows banal and repetitive, forcing viewers to look to the fringes for points of interest.
Working with DPs Christopher Blauvelt and the late Harris Savides (to whom the film is dedicated), Coppola offers a handful of sinfully memorable shots (like one that holds on a stolen Porsche as Rebecca fluidly lowers its top), and she has her share of fun with visual echoes (like Rebecca’s bedroom wall full of Lindsay Lohan cutouts versus Paris Hilton’s relatively absurd staircase full of huge self-portraits). The director’s best running gag is Marc’s attachment to a pair of Paris’s heels, which fit him given the heiress’s infamously large shoe size; he rocks them in his room while his parents are none the wiser, and that’s just one more way Coppola sticks it to the film’s cartoonishly blind adults. Her most poignant scene, beyond those that see the Bling Ringers pay heed to all but the bad celeb news (“Lindsay got another DUI”), involves a night-vision webcam shot of Mark smoking pot in his room. Just long enough to be affecting, the image is the antidote to that insufferable slow-zoom of a plaster-caked Stephen Dorff in Somewhere, as it nails the center-of-the-universe/nowhere-in-the-universe feeling a lost teen can have.
But Coppola otherwise hits a wall of E! True Hollywood Story blandness. Even her standout exploitation of Watson, who serves as a ditzy dartboard for the director’s anger toward potential-wasting girls, and who gets an image lampoon and a juicy role all at once, grows tiresome and puerile before long; the actress largely becomes the go-to gal to give spoiled one-liners before scenes cut. A lot of people will see The Bling Ring, and maybe they’ll learn something while scoffing at it, or find some valuable subtext. But whatever they get, it’ll be from a filmmaker who hardly seems like one of Coppola’s powers.