“The Bling Ring,” which goes wide this weekend, didn’t get much respect when it had its world premiere last month in Cannes; nor has Sofia Coppola’s fifth feature proved to be a critical darling.
The reviews have been mixed and even those critics who defend the movie appear affected by the filmmaker’s blasé, seemingly apathetic attitude towards a subject that clearly, deeply fascinates her. The movie has been simultaneously shrugged off and praised for its uncompromising banality, shallowness, and lack of affect, as well as for Coppola’s own apparent lack of commitment. (Similarly, the two stand-out performances — Leslie Mann’s new age airhead and her bratty, stubbornly self-justifying daughter Emma Watson — are both courageous portrayals of characters one loves to hate, or simply hates.)
Based on a true story (or rather its account in Vanity Fair), “The Bling Ring” has a sensational premise: A group of wealthy Beverly Hills teens take up looting the houses of the local rich and famous, using online gossip sites to find out who is out of town. Because their plunder is mainly taken in souvenirs from victims who are too sated with stuff to miss anything, the kids manage to keep the fun going, undetected, for what seems to be a number of months.
There’s not much narrative. “The Bling Ring” is basically the same thing over and over — many returns to the imploded department store of Paris Hilton’s mansion, accompanied by a typically curated Coppola music track and a continuous crescendo of excited “omigod”s. As heedless as the burglars are, the viewer may be amazed that they got away with their antics for as long as they did. Ultimately, one of their capers is recorded by a surveillance camera, but it’s not until that tape is posted online that there’s anything like a break in the case. Some moral satisfaction may be gleaned when the perps are brought to justice (for the crime of having stolen a pair of Lindsay Lohan’s shoes or… whatever), but that pleasure is short-lived. As the movie makes painfully clear, most were amply rewarded with friend requests, fan pages, and more coin of the realm, including of course “The Bling Ring,” in which they’re very much glamorized. So what would Andy Warhol think?
In its diffident way, “The Bling Ring” is more disturbing than “Spring Breakers,” which it resembles in its candy-colored apparent celebration of youthful idiocy or anarchy, or “The Social Network,” which it also evokes in attempting to ponder the ways in which the Internet has modified human desire. Although “The Bling Ring” is essentially a movie about a new form of social banditry, namely socializing fame and its perqs, Coppola typically treats the material as beyond or beneath social criticism. No less than Warhol, the artist is strenuously a-intellectual, typically refusing to acknowledge any thematic linkage in her movies, all of which involve the vicissitudes of young women trying to find themselves in a world of consumerism and celebrity, just as the filmmaker has had to.
Indeed, given her position as Hollywood royalty, Coppola is likely the only director who could have gotten Paris Hilton to open the hall of mirrors that is her home as a movie set — a pit of narcissistic display that tilts “The Bling Ring” towards documentary, if not psychodrama.