Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Bling Ring: A Hole in the Center

The Bling Ring
US/UK/France/Germany/Japan, 2013
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola

The affluent California suburbs of Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring are a sprawl of cookie-cutter mansions, populated by scores of absentee or ineffectual parents and entitled teens with no responsibilities. In this world, so close to wealth and stardom yet so far removed from the work it takes to achieve either, a curious cult of TMZ and designer brands grows up in the absence of anything more substantial. This was the fertile ground that sprouted the true-life tale of the "Bling Ring," a group of teenagers who used the internet and gossip rags to find celebrities' homes and determine when the stars were out of town so they could break in and steal things (or "go shopping," as they phrased it), cloaking themselves the lifestyle they aspired to possess.

In this fictionalized version of the story, Marc (Israel Broussard) is an isolated, fashion-conscious teen whose excessive absences force him into an alternative school in Calabasas. There, he meets Rebecca (Katie Chang), an amoral but vivacious girl who sees nothing wrong with taking anything—money, jewelry, cars—their wealthy neighbors leave unattended. They spend their money on flashy things and partying at clubs, where they get together with mutual friend Chloe (Courtney Ames) and the Moore sisters—Nicki (Emma Watson) and adopted Sam (Taissa Farmiga), who are home-schooled, along with younger sister Emily (Georgia Rock), by their New-Agey, The Secret–obsessed mom (Leslie Mann). The group talks of little save designers or celebrities, often on a first-name basis as though they were acquaintances. Soon, they hit on a plan to sneak into Paris Hilton's house while she's out of town, assuming (correctly) that she would just keep her key under the doormat. This kicks off a near addiction to the twinned highs of breaking the law and aping their victims' opulent lifestyles in public and on social media. The Ring continues their life of crime and escalating drug consumption, with Rebecca always egging the group on to more and more (though, in truth, they need little pushing) and Chloe's sleazy boyfriend (Bush's Gavin Rossdale) ready to fence their ill-gotten goods.

There's a challenge inherent in films like The Bling Ring, films that focus on venal people obsessed with the trappings of fame and glamour. On the one hand, the film must find a way to convey the sense of excitement its characters derive from their interests, however hollow they may be, and the illegal acts these interests inspire to an audience that may not share those interests. On the other, the film has to be careful that, in conveying that excitement, it does not tacitly endorse the same illegal acts. By this measure, The Bling Ring mostly succeeds, as neither Coppola's script nor her direction seems to judge her felonious leads, positively or negatively. Unfortunately, this impartiality creates other issues: a curious sense of distance and lack of empathetic connection to any of the characters.

Some of this could just be me: as with the similarly-themed Spring Breakers, I find nothing "fun" in the things these characters enjoy, so it's hard to relate to or share the buzz they feel. But some of this lack of connection comes solely from the pointlessness of the group's acts, from the energy and time these characters misspend on the signifiers of fame and fortune rather than on doing anything to earn them. In a way, then, this disconnect is what Coppola wants us to feel; it is a commentary on a culture that prizes image above all else. But Coppola's non-judgmental tone makes her commentary lack the bite you may feel it deserves, not least in the lack of a broader perspective on the characters' insular, privileged world.

But what I find most lacking, then, is a reason to care about these characters and the circumstances that lead them to do what they do. Aside from the loose framework of Mann's character's "law of attraction" hoodoo, whose vision boards could almost justify the characters' prizing of images over reality, we get few insights into the characters' motivations. I wanted at least one personal story, at least one bit of sincere self-awareness, but neither came. While this helps avoid potential structural cliches in the story, it also leads to fairly inert drama. Coppola informs us from the start the kids don't get away with it, so the drama isn't meant to come from their apprehension or the police action that brings them in (almost no "investigation" happens on screen). Neither does it come from the planning or execution of the heists, which are simplified and trouble free, and often elided in favor of repetitive sequences of eminently-purloinable merchandise. And the few twinges of conscience the characters display aren't enough to center the dramatic tension on questions of morality. Coppola displays the Ring's revelries in great detail, with slo-mo party scenes and montages of Facebook selfies, but distances us via talking head "confessionals" that seem out of context until quite late in the film. So, if the drama doesn't come from any of these things, where DOES it come from? I'm not sure the film ever decides.

Still, there is some fun in the sheer audacity of what the characters (and their real-life counterparts) manage to do. You certainly can't fault them for a lack of ambition or chutzpah, even if both are put to perverse use. The young cast is good, if unspectacular apart from Emma Watson as Nicki, whose believable California accent and vacant manner disguise a cunning opportunist. If Watson ever learns to reign in her busy eyebrows, whose exaggerated movements smack a bit too much of "acting," she could develop into a top-drawer actor. Also worth note is the cinematography from the late, great Harris Savides (his final film) and Christopher Blauvelt. Their work in low light, whether illuminating the dark exteriors of vacant mansions or hiding the illicit activities taking place within, is especially worth commending.

As for the film, in and of itself, well, that's more of a mixed bag. The Bling Ring is rarely less than watchable, but the distance Coppola allows its characters makes it hard to stand by more fully. It's a bit ironic, really, that a film about the hollowness of image never quite gives its subject the depth it deserves. Ironic, and unfortunately disappointing.

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