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It’s difficult to decide who displays the most chutzpah in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. Is it the posse of superficial pillagers who breeze in and out of celebrity homes, steal loads of luxury-branded loot, and believe they’ll never get caught? The famous Hollywood Hills residents who inadvertently enable the robberies by leaving alarm systems off, doors unlocked, and front door keys accessible? Or is it we Americans who collectively created a celebrity-driven, conspicuous-consumption culture, yet gasp in horror when that culture spawns young Gucci-snatchers like the bling ringers?
In her new movie based on the actual 2008 and 2009 ransackings of residences owned by Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom, and others, director Sofia Coppola implies that the answer is all of the above. Revisiting themes she’s explored in previous films—the audacity of entitled teens (Marie Antoinette) and the hazards of wealth and notoriety (Lost in Translation and Somewhere)—Coppola delivers her most kinetic, action-infused work to date. Unfortunately, it’s also her least substantive, showing us exactly how these organized, Google-mapping fashionistas commit their crimes but never delving deeply enough to explain why.
Using Nancy Jo Sales’s Vanity Fair piece about the break-ins as its primary source material, The Bling Ring introduces us to Marc (Israel Broussard), an insecure, troubled kid who enrolls at an alternative high school and befriends Rebecca (Katie Chang), a queen bee whose primary ambition is to attend the Fashion Institute of Design because “The Hills girls went there.” (The names of the accused have all been changed.) After showing Marc how easy it is to snag credit cards and cash from unlocked cars parked on L.A.’s back streets, the pair engages in some Internet sleuthing to find Paris Hilton’s address, map its location, and verify that she’s out of town. They then head to her place where they find, conveniently, that a key has been left under the mat, allowing them to enter a residence decorated, as one might expect, with pillowcases emblazoned with Hilton’s face, a stripper pole, and closets overflowing with tacky stilettos and sparkly minidresses. While the robbers consider this a jackpot, some audience members may be tempted to call the fashion police. Also: the actual police.
Of course, the cops are not called—at least not right away—which leads to a parade of increasingly risky celebrity burglaries by a widening circle of style-conscious thieves, all of whom are dying to get their hands on Orlando Bloom’s Rolexes and Megan Fox’s red-carpet frocks. “I want to rob,” declares Nicki, a participant in the ongoing pilfering of People magazine’s cover children. Nicki is played by Emma Watson, who adopts a Val-Gal accent and bad-girl attitude that, coupled with her ax-wielding cameo in This is the End, sheds a few more layers of her Hermione-in-Harry-Potter skin. She’s quite convincing here, as is most of the cast, with the exception of Gavin Rossdale, who mumbles so persistently through his role as a club owner and accessory to bling-ring crimes that it’s nearly impossible to hear anything he says.
But Rossdale isn’t the problem in The Bling Ring. What’s of greater concern is the tone. At first, the robberies are depicted in a way that evokes an oddly giddy sense of fun; the notion that it could be so easy to take from people who seem to possess far more than they need turns the bling-ringers into modern-day Robin Hoods of sorts, if you ignore the fact that they’re robbing from the rich to give to themselves. But pretty soon the actions of this hard-partying, social media-obsessed set begin to feel repetitive. When we see them inevitably strolling in slo-mo down a Hollywood sidewalk, decked out in illegally acquired ensembles while Kanye West’s “Power” blares on the soundtrack, we’re faced with a cliché that, after nearly an hour of observing such vapid behavior, feels all the more fatiguing. At times, The Bling Ring comes across as nothing more than an E! True Hollywood Story, minus the cheesy voice-over and shot with greater technical prowess. Which is ironic, since Alexis Neiers, upon whom Watson’s Nicki is based, briefly starred in her own E! reality show.
Coppola seems too smart to make a movie that ultimately leaves us with the unsurprising realization that kids today have been trained to believe they have the inalienable right to a Hermes-and-Prada lifestyle. But after watching this film, which is all surface and little depth, it’s hard to see much else to it. Unless, of course, Coppola wants us to realize that when it comes to celebrity and high fashion, there actually isn’t much there there. If that’s the case, The Bling Ring may be the most effective anti-TMZ PSA you’ll ever see.