The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013)

It’s a shame that The Bling Ring follows Spring Breakers by mere months. I fear that the overwhelming (and in my opinion, completely unjustified) hype will lead to many unfavorable comparisons for Sofia Coppola. Both films follow a group of hedonists engaging in an escalating series of outlandish pursuits, both spend plenty of time with party scenes, and both even carve out a special place for a male character who finds himself in the circle. Where Harmony Korine relies heavily on “irony,” portraying things so heavily over-the-top that the only conclusion is that he is making fun of the “spring break forever” attitude of MTV youth and mocking their ideas of fun and value, Coppola takes a much more straightforward and insightful approach. The Bling Ring is a look at what causes the materialistic lifestyle, addressing not only the hedonists who worship TMZ culture, but also indicting the materialistic celebrities who indulge in it and the media that perpetuates it. Nobody is off the hook in The Bling Ring, and characterizations are much fuller, allowing for an exploration of both motivations and consequences, two important factors Korine’s film fails to examine in any meaningful way.

The Bling Ring indulges largely in a cycle, repetition with variation, of a group of teenagers that broke into the homes of famous celebrities and stole money, jewelry, and clothing. When they aren’t breaking in, they are hanging around somebody’s room trying on clothing and smoking or partying to show-off their new look. Occasionally, the film becomes redundant, but for the most part, Coppola’s brilliant direction keeps things interesting. On one occasion, one of the girls gets her hands on a gun, and the next minute or two are a terrifying depiction of what happens when ignorance and apathy collide. The questions of whether she is dumb enough to pull the trigger and if the gun is even loaded acting not just as a fear—she points it at the one member of the group with a conscience—but also a realization of how plausible it is for things to suddenly go very wrong. Another break-in is portrayed in a long distance aerial shot, giving us an exterior view of half the house that suggests that, somehow, the culprits are being watched, a belief underscored when the camera begins to slowly zoom in. One of the last burglaries turns off the sound—by that point, it’s clear that this group never has anything new or intelligent to say. It’s not just a way of adding variety, though; the long shot eventually delivers on its promise of surveillance, while the muted conversations makes way for an electronic hum and helicopters that foreshadow the impending breakdown.

But The Bling Ring is far more than the sumptuous pursuits it depicts. For one, the major characters are distinct, with their own unique motivations. Rebecca, the ring leader, wants the clothing and idolizes the celebrity, but she decides to break in largely because it’s not only possible, it’s easy. Nikki is chasing fame, idolizing status more than anything else. She tries on a dozen outfits before deciding and won’t except anything less than perfection in the look and attitude exhibited; everything she does is disgustingly calculated and fake. Rebecca, by contrast, is content simply knowing she’s wearing something one of her fashion icons has also worn. Nikki gets on the dance floor while Rebecca chills on the couch. Chloe and Sam aren’t given enough personality to distinguish them, but they aren’t interchangeable with the others, either. Chloe is the one who seems to get access to the clubs and is sleeping with someone who works there, while Sam—who lives with Nikki—is quickly given a more complete backstory and is pegged as a loose-cannon of sorts. Mark has a conscience (he often times second-guesses the group’s actions) but he proceeds because of his desires to fit in. A great touch at the beginning of the film has him looking in the mirror before school, buttoning up his shirt, and then unbuttoning it again. Mark is insecure, and he doesn’t want to look expensive so much as he just wants to be noticed and feel attractive. He goes along because these are the only friends he has. That each member has a unique personality prevents The Bling Ring from becoming boring and ensures that the parties and burglaries are more interesting; more than just watching rich kids rob richer celebs, we get to watch teenagers interact.

Indeed, it isn’t just TMZ-watching kids to blame. The celebrities are mocked for leaving their doors unlocked, and the first trip through Paris Hilton’s house is such a glorious display of narcissism, a look at pillows with her own face on them and walls covered in her own framed magazine covers, that you can’t help but think that the real problem isn’t the Bling Ring so much as it is the celebrities who indulge in the materialist lifestyle. Indeed, that they do not even know that anything is missing points to a problem far bigger than teenagers going on a minor (albeit lucrative) crime spree.

The third prong, the media, exists more in the background at first. When Rebecca follows “I love Audrina’s [Patridge] style” with “can we steal from her,” we see her actions as acts of mimicry, so empty as to warrant pity, and perhaps even a cry for help from a girl who knows nothing more than what television and the internet throw at her. But if the group can decide whose house to break into by looking online to see where and when they are hosting a party and then find their empty house on Google, there is another problem that needs fixing. Indeed, when film’s denouement zooms in on Nikki, her actions and interview responses are so exaggerated and calculated that one can’t help but implicate those that have aided her rise to fame in the creation of such an empty lifestyle. You’ll leave with contempt for Nikki, but she wouldn’t be halfway there at the film’s end if she wasn’t constantly being propped up.

In fact, the film’s syntax positions it very much like a social-media triumph. Transitions between scenes are stitched together with photos being uploaded to Facebook and with TMZ footage, and that the characters are constantly pursuing the TMZ lifestyle and then get a movie that looks down on them creates an irony that only further condemns all three prongs. The framing device, in which Mark recounts events to Nancy Jo Sales (who wrote “The Suspect Wore Louboutins,” the film’s source material) seeks to further capitalize on this irony, but the results are a bit clunky and heavy-handed.

But as the suspects pile up, from the culprits to their victims to the culture that covers it, it becomes harder to separate red herrings from the real thing, and Coppola expands the picture to larger issues, things that exist outside the tabloid worlds, and suggests that this is just one symptom of a much larger problem: poor parenting. Mark’s father is constantly out of town and, in a darkly comic sequence, fails to notice the kids smoking in his own house; Nikki’s mother home-schools her children and teaches Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and gives the kids the Adderall; Sam has been roped into that same life because of her own parental problems; Rebecca doesn’t get along with one parent, and the other is out of the state. Although Nikki’s parent—the only largely present one—is far too much a caricature to add anything to the story, she is a symptom of a larger problem that The Bling Ring implicates. There are no easy answers (indeed, the smartest answer isn’t “the media” or “the celebs” but rather “poor education”) but ties together small issues with major ones.

It’s worth noting, then, that these teens aren’t specifically burgling celebrities so much as they are rebelling generally. They all go to “drop-out school,” as Rebecca calls it, and we know that they start with drugs and alcohol and stealing money from unlocked cars before they become the “Bling Ring.” Burgling is a natural progression, enabled by media, unlocked doors, and celebrity excess. This is rich kids rebelling like they know how, knowing that their parents are too oblivious to punish them for it. If you feel like you can get away with it—and they do—what’s the harm? It’s beautifully summed up in a slow motion shot in which the Bling Ring, dressed to the nines in their designer clothing, walk down the street to Kanye West’s “Power.” The shot continues with nothing happening until abruptly cutting to a party following the lyrics “scream from the haters, got a nice ring to it/I guess every superhero needs his theme music.” They are living the life, or perhaps “the life,” because nobody has ever been there to tell them otherwise.

(Grade: B+)

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