It could have been one of those ripped-from-the-headlines quickies you see on subpar cable. Instead, The Bling Ring plugs into the zeitgeist of trash culture and sparks like a live wire. Sofia Coppola’s fact-based film about a crew of SoCal teens who started robbing the likes of Paris and LiLo (Hilton and Lohan, to the enviably uninitiated) in 2008 is up to more compelling business than pointing fingers and acting superior. Thanks to social media and reality TV, we’re all getting hard-ons from rubbing up against celebrity. These kids liked wearing what they stole, feeling it on their skin, documenting it with selfies, putting themselves on YouTube. Coppola’s cinematic provocation asks why in hell anyone would want to have sex with the bling they steal from Megan Fox, Rachel Bilson or a babe famous for being on The Hills. There’s no carnal futzing with Hilton’s Louboutins, Lohan’s jewels or Orlando Bloom’s Vuitton luggage. Or at least none we see. But keeping up with the Kardashians is a bitch. Like the broken girls in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, we’re all living in a world out of wack.
Leaving the judgment call to us, the gifted Coppola proceeds with the exacting cool of an anthropologist and the discerning eye of a true sensualist. Before the law ended the party, the ring ran off with more than $3 million in money, drugs and high-end fashion. The bling looks so tasty you want to lick the screen, thanks to the striking digital cinematography of the great Harris Savides, who died during production (Christopher Blauvelt completed the job). Coppola lets us revel in the bling before pulling us up short. There are victims here, even though many of them took forever to notice what was missing. Though Coppola’s source material is a 2010 Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, her script is attuned to the internal dynamics of these teen felons.
Emma Watson is sensational as Nicki, an underage club girl and actress wanna-be, who lives in a universe of Valley Girl narcissism eons away from Hogwarts. “I wanna rob,” deadpans Nicki, a character based on Alexis Neiers, who negotiated her own E! reality show. Also drawn from life are Nicki’s BFF, Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and cell-phone-addicted Chloe (Claire Julien). Nicki’s New Age-y mom (a terrific Leslie Mann) schools these girls at home, makes sure they take their Adderall and keeps them versed in the language of redemption – a handy trick after their capture. It’s hilarious when Nicki tells the media she sees her arrest as a learning experience: “I wanna lead a country one day, for all I know.” Talk about laughs that stick in your throat.
Ironically, Nicki isn’t even the boss of this posse. That role falls to crazy-confident Rebecca (a mesmerizing Katie Chang), a daughter of Korean immigrants who is hellbent on living her fantasies. Rebecca gets help from Mark (Israel Broussard), a nerd with the computer skills to find out what celeb is out of town and for how long. An address is just a Google search away. Chang and Broussard make Rebecca and Mark the funniest-scariest pair of fame whores that you’d never want to meet. At first, their no-muss school of break-ins works like a charm, turning the homes of the stars into their own private shopping salons.
It’s too many return visits to Chez Hilton that tips the balance. Mark has become so attached to Hilton’s size-11 stilettos that (nice touch) he wears them at home. Rebecca wants to kidnap Hilton’s dog. Security cameras don’t faze them. They barely give a thought to consequences. Nicki is thrilled to be in the same cell block as Lohan. Hilton cameos in the film as herself, and trumps that by giving Coppola access to shoot in her home, complete with a personal nightclub and pillows with her face on them.
The Bling Ring is often very funny, but never cruel. Coppola has previously plumbed the depths (or shallows) of spotlight obsession in Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette and Somewhere, feeling the glare as the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola and one of only four women to be Oscar-nominated as Best Director. But the reality-tabloid culture is a different beast. There’s nothing new about people getting famous for being famous. What concerns Coppola is a generation wanting to be just like them. The members of the bling ring don’t envy the talent of their idols. They envy their visibility and designer labels. In party scenes, sharply edited by Sarah Flack, celebrity sightings aren’t part of the fun, they are the fun. The soundtrack, including Kanye West, 2 Chainz and Phoenix (with Coppola’s husband, Thomas Mars), features Frank Ocean singing about “super-rich kids with nothing but fake friends.” Coppola is too smart to put it all down to bum times and bad parenting. What she sees are amoral teens longing for some kind of intimacy. In Paris’ pumps or Lindsay’s jewels, maybe you’re not so alone.