A copy of Sofia Coppola’s latest film should be stowed in a climate-controlled archive somewhere. Not because it’s a classic, but because, if the various economic-doomsday prophets are correct, the people of the future will want to understand the society of excess that led to our downfall.
It’s hard to imagine a film that illustrates the problem better than this lightly fictionalized account of a gang of affluent LA teenagers who burgled the homes of celebrities starting in 2008, taking a haul of more than $3 million in designer goods. When the kids break into Paris Hilton’s mansion (filmed in her actual home), they encounter piles of glittering jewels, rows on rows of color-coordinated stilettos, and a nightclub room complete with stripper pole.
It’s like a hyperbolic description of the king’s coffers in a fairy tale, with an appropriately weird twist: No one guards this abundance. The thieves discover Hilton’s house key under her doormat. Someone watching this film centuries hence might think that 21st-century America had no poor, so careless were the rich of their wealth. When aspiring fashion designer Rebecca (Katie Chang) decides to introduce her new friend, Marc (Israel Broussard), to the world of petty crime, she takes him on a jaunt down her street. They pluck handbags from unlocked luxury cars the way kids of another era might pluck apples.
Partially shot by the late cinematographer Harris Savides (Zodiac), The Bling Ring has a lush look that does justice to its subject. The script, however, isn’t as inventive.
Coppola drew much of the teens’ most memorable dialogue straight from the Vanity Fair story by Nancy Jo Sales on which the film is based. The public appearances of alleged Bling Ring member Alexis Neiers offered another trove of ready-made satirical material. Played with wicked self-awareness by Emma Watson, the character based on Neiers is prone to comparing herself to Angelina Jolie and declaring, “I want to lead a country one day, for all I know.” At home, her mom (Leslie Mann) plies her daughters with Adderall and a philosophy of self-affirmation based on The Secret.
It’s funny stuff, but already familiar to anyone who managed to endure five minutes of Neiers’ short-lived E! reality show. Where Coppola fails is in filling the spaces between the soundbites — that is, in giving her shallow characters the shadings that might lead us to empathy and insight. We get a sense of the codependent bond between insecure Marc (who laments his lack of “A-list looks”) and his gal pal Rebecca, who appears to instigate the crimes out of a pathological need to feel celebrities’ clothes against her skin. Broussard and Chang have good moments, but their characters remain sketches, static and undeveloped.
As the movie progresses, it increasingly feels like we’re not being told a coherent story so much as tagging along on a tour of a world as bizarre as the Ancien Régime. In a few shots, Coppola captures — visually, at least — a certain cold perspective on that world: When the kids break into Audrina Patridge’s home, we watch them from a distance through her giant windows, like minnows in a glowing fishbowl.
But then we’re treated to scene after scene of the characters showing off their stolen finery in slo-mo, or gawping at the stars’ riches and exchanging bons mots such as “Oh, my God.” “I know, right?” In short, the movie is a little too close to being an E! reality show.
We get the point: These people need a rude awakening. But, aside from fleeting shots of the characters in orange prison jumpsuits, nothing in this film suggests they will ever get one.