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The Bling Ring

“The Bling Ring” is an odd, funny, somewhat artsy film from Sofia Coppolla based on a fascinating Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales titled “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.”  You can read the article here, (and it’s worth reading,) but I’ll sum it up for you: a group of L.A. teenagers burgled the houses of various celebrities over the course of several months.  Based on information gleaned from celebrity gossip rags (and blogs) as well as Google Maps, they visited the million dollar homes of Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton and others while they were at parties or away on film shoots, found the security surprisingly lax (Hilton had a spare key under the welcome mat) and stole their clothes, money, and underwear, which they would then wear to parties and nightclubs.

It’s a fascinating story, not least because it tempts us to make sweeping generalizations about “kids these days.”  And generally, when a story like this gets picked up by a film company, the movie that results is a sort of true crime confessional. It dives deep into the characters and their motivations, because, we the people want to understand how and why people could do things like this.  It’s the “Bonnie and Clyde” sub-genre, and it’s a pretty reliable film formula.

But Sofia Coppola seems aggressively determined to fly in the face of that formula. Almost the entire film is shot from midrange, with very few closeups.  Confessional moments aren’t, really – they’re played for laughs (though I was surprised to find that some of the funniest, most outrageous moments come verbatim from the Vanity Fair article the movie was based on.  Real people said things like “I want to run a huge charity organization.  I want to lead a country, for all I know.”  You can’t write this stuff.)  But I think Coppola is keeping her distance on purpose.  This is a movie about surfaces, appearances, and it would be a bit odd to dig beneath the surface of our characters. Contrary to expectations, “The Bling Ring” isn’t going to explain to us what makes these people tick. They are opaque; that’s the point. Us cornfed flyover Americans don’t understand them.  We can throw easy explanations at them, say things about absent parents and celebrity obsession and substance abuse, but at the end of the day, what we have are a generation (or a culture) of surface-obsessed young people, and it’s really anyone’s guess what — if anything — lies beneath that surface.

But once Coppola’s intentions are clear, it’s worth asking whether they’re actually good intentions, aesthetically.  There’s definitely a certain logic in a surface-obsessed director like Coppola making a film about surface-obsessed criminals, and I can respect the idea that you can’t actually get to know real people by watching a fictional film about them. But all this really amounts to is seeing “The Bling Ring” as a negation; it’s a protest against true crime confessionals, in the form of a movie that’s supposed to function as a piece of entertainment. But without something positive to replace what it’s clearing out of the way, “The Bling Ring” feels kind of empty, and even (inadvertently) invites us to fill in its absence with our own conjecture. I’m confident that Coppola is not trying to say anything at all about “kids these days,” and yet, when the credits roll, it’s tempting to say something along those lines anyway.  And so, in that way, “The Bling Ring” itself is like its protagonists (if you can call them that) : it’s all surface, inscrutable, mysterious, and ultimately unsatisfying.


Other random thoughts: 

  • There’s a great sequence of a robbery filmed from several hundred yards away – we watch everything through the giant glass windows that substitute for walls in this reality TV star’s house.
  • I don’t like the “Unsolved Mysteries” structure, and I wish movies would abandon it — or find a way to make it fresh.  I don’t need dramatic scenes intercut with interviews of the characters, explaining what they are thinking or doing.  It feels cheap and lazy, almost as lazy as voiceover, the characters straight out telling us things the director couldn’t figure out how to show us in the scene.  It just makes it worse when the things they’re telling us aren’t that important, or are things we could have figured out from the dramatic scenes.
  • Israel Broussard is an odd casting choice for our main character.  I would expect someone more classically good-looking, or at least someone better groomed.  With his shaggy mop of hair and ever-present hoodies, he looks more like the outcast, creative and sensitive center of movies like “The Way, Way Back” or “Bandslam” than a fashion-obsessed club hopper.  I have a hard time believing that girls like these – pretty, popular, rich girls – would give him the time of day.  Ever.
  •  There are a lot of things I found hard to believe in “The Bling Ring,” and it turns out most of them are actually straight from the true story.  As far as I can tell – and I’ve scoured Google looking for an explanation – a number of celebrities do not have home alarm systems — or maybe they don’t set them when they leave their million dollar houses chock full of designer clothes and top of the line everything. Paris Hilton really did leave a key under the mat.  The Bling Ring was eventually caught thanks in part to security camera footage, but apparently nobody’s checking the cameras very often, because they robbed several of these places six or seven times.
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