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Following on the heels of Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring completes a triptych of 2013 films about incredibly stupid people doing incredibly stupid criminal things viewed from strikingly ambivalent, noncommittal directorial perspectives. Shot in a gliding, gently intoxicating style that lightly suggests that this “based on actual events” story could be taking place in a dream (or, more to the point, an altered state), this is a too-cool-for-school portrait of spoiled kids achieving dubious but welcome fame for robbing the homes of young Hollywood celebrities. As such, it will attain a certain stature itself as a cultural artifact but without stirring significant interest artistically or commercially.
Based on a Vanity Fair article about the Southern California high schoolers who snatched about $2 million worth of mostly wardrobe items from the surprisingly unsecured homes of Paris Hilton, Megan Fox and their ilk, Bling Ring fits quite snugly with the rarefied realms of blithe privilege examined in the director’s most recent films, Marie Antoinette and Somewhere. Populated by Calabasas, Calif., students who drive BMWs and are preoccupied by drugs, fashion and the Internet and make it their business to know the travel schedules of celebrities so they can make house calls during their absences, the wispy tale has all the substance of an off-hand, can-you-believe-it anecdote but here takes the form of a dark but curiously lulling reverie; the characters lack not only a sense of conscience but even consciousness of what they’re doing.
Hatching the plot is Rebecca (Katie Chang), a foxy Asian-American who latches onto a willing cohort in Mark (Israel Broussard), a new student at Indian Hills School. After some larky local trespassing, they hit Hilton’s place when they know the lady of the house in away in Vegas and make off with a few souvenirs to show off. That Rebecca feels on a first-name basis with her victim goes without question.
Now feeling right at home, they soon return with clothes-obsessed pals Nicki (Emma Watson), her adopted little sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and the bold Chloe (Claire Julien) and lead them straight to the dress, shoe and jewelry closets that are as large as a New York studio apartment. “Oh, her feet are so big!” one of them exclaims while trying to figure out what to take. On a third visit, Rebecca has to be restrained by Mark from making off with Hilton’s dog (going along with the joke, the heiress allowed the filmmakers to shoot in her house and turns up briefly in one scene).
The arid home lives and negligible parental supervision of these kids are exemplified by Nicki’s single mom, Laurie (Leslie Mann), who engages her girls in “prayer” sessions so lamely misguided they make the worst New Age blather seem profound. These scenes needed a kind of satiric edge that is clearly beyond Coppola’s grasp, making it seem wise that she has otherwise kept grown-ups almost entirely out of the picture.
Emboldened by the easy success of their stealthy nocturnal missions, the well-dressed gang sets out with increasing frequency, hitting the homes of Megan Fox, where Nicki is enamored of a gun she finds, and Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr, resulting in a large wad of cash and expensive watches but also in video-surveillance footage of the intruders that turns up on TV.
But, as before, the brazen break-ins have no consequences, so the interlopers persist at the homes of Rachel Bilson and, finally, Rebecca’s hero, Lindsay Lohan. Suddenly, the jig is up, but, for the perpetrators, this is where their own celebrity begins, starting with their arrest, trial, Vanity Fair article and now a chic feature film.
Perhaps even more here than in her other films, Coppola’s attitude toward her subject seems equivocal, uncertain; there is perhaps a smidgen of social commentary, but she seems far too at home in the world she depicts to offer a rewarding critique of it. At the same time, she’s too unemphatic a filmmaker to deliver what could be construed as an exposé from the belly of the beast. It’s more like a teasing, mildly titillating pulling-down-the-covers off some naughty but hardly grave adolescent behavior.
It’s a matter of public record that the miscreants were found guilty and did at least a little time for their transgressions. Most disturbing, however, are the pompous, self-serving, unrepentant statements the characters make about how much they’ve learned and intend to contribute to society. Far more in character is the oh-my-God excitement one of them exudes over having shared a cellblock with Lohan.
Speaking Valleyese with impeccable banality, the ensemble cast delivers comprehensive portraits of superficiality and moral cluelessness. It’s fun to see Watson departing so decisively from her smartypants Hermione identity, while Chang marks herself as someone to watch.
Visually, the digitally shot feature is dreamy — one long take from a distance of some kids making their way through one of their targeted houses is particularly captivating — but it sadly marks the final film undertaken by ace cinematographer Harris Savides, who died partway through shooting; his longtime operator Christopher Blauvelt capably finished up.
The sets, locations and massive number of costumes define the film as much as anything else, while the two dozen-plus pop-music selections also do their share, none more so than the Frank Ocean end credits cut, “Super Rich Kids (With Nothing But Fake Friends).”
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Opens: June 14 (A24)
Production: American Zoetrope, Nala Films
Cast: Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Taissa Farmiga, Claire Julien, Georgia Rock, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann, Gavin Rossdale
Director: Sofia Coppola
Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola, based on the Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales
Producers: Roman Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Youree Henley
Executive producers: Emilio Diez Barroso, Darlene Cammano Loquet, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Rassam, Fred Roos, Mike Zakin
Directors of photography: Harris Savides, Christopher Blauvelt
Production designer: Anne Ross
Costume designer: Stacey Battat
Editor: Sarah Flack
Music supervisor: Bran Reitzell
Rated R, 91 minutes
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