Movie Review: The Bling Ring (2013)
After watching Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” at SIFF Uptown in lower Queen Anne in Seattle, my friend Vinny complained that the movie didn’t give us enough outside of the vacuous lives of its girl/gay protagonists, who are obsessed with celebrity and luxury items and combine the two fascinations by breaking into the homes of celebrities (Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan) and stealing shit (jewelry, shoes, panties, pills).
“That’s what’s brilliant about it,” I said. “It doesn’t give us anything else. Just that.”
Seriously, I can’t remember a recent movie where form and content matched so well. You could make the movie and the characters more interesting. You could use better actors. You could create better dialogue and give us a better soundtrack. But there’s a kind of brilliance in immersing us in the awful, dreamlike horror of these empty, empty lives. What is it these kids do? They steal, then they wear what they steal, then they dance and party, wearing what they’ve stolen, and take countless selfies and post them on Facebook and tell their friends where they’ve been. It’s the emptiest of lives but it’s the pinnacle of life for them. How sad is that? They are drawn to the celebrity light as if only that which is filmed is real. They want to be on the other side of the celebrity camera. They want to be the watched rather than the watcher.
They get their wish.
Can you afford me?
Marc (Israel Broussard) is the new kid in school in Calabasas, Calif., an affluent suburb of Los Angeles, and his arrival is greeted by the other kids with vague eyerolls, OMGs, and dismissive critiques of what he’s wearing. A girl in the hallway bumps into him and tells him to watch it. The sense of privilege here, particularly among the girls, is immediate and overwhelming. But Rebecca (Katie Chang) seems nice, if blank. She makes overtures. She invites him to the beach. Why is she so nice to him? Because she feels she can manipulate him? We never find out.
Soon they’re hanging regularly. They smoke pot. They go shopping. The actors aren’t particularly good and their dialogue isn’t particularly interesting because the characters have nothing really to say. “I was always self-conscious that I wasn’t as good-looking as other people,” Marc tells us in voiceover. That’s as deep as it gets. The whole thing feels inert and airless.
They begin to hang with a few others, including Nicki the princess (Emma Watson), her crazy half-sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and balls-out Chloe (Claire Julien, in one of the film’s better performances). They ride around town, listen to hip-hop, flash gang signs, and engage in girl talk:
Girl 1: Bitch, you’re just jealous.
Girl 2: Suck my dick.
They get into clubs even though they’re underage. Hey, there’s Kirsten Dunst. Hey, there’s Paris Hilton. Later, Marc reads that Paris is hosting a party in Vegas. That’s when Rebecca gets the idea. Where does Paris live? “I bet she’d leave her keys under the mat,” Rebecca says. CUT TO: Finding the keys under the mat. That was good. That made me laugh out loud.
Arguments can be made about which is worse: the kids’ celebrity obsession or the celebrity’s own celebrity obsession. Paris Hilton’s place, as portrayed here, is glitzy and filled with reminders of her own status: throw pillows with her picture on them; a wall of her magazine covers; a framed poster of herself wearing a T-shirt reading “CAN YOU AFFORD ME?” One secret room contains nothing but designer shoes. The kids, who return several times, try on clothes and jewelry as if they’re in a store. They fight over outfits. Rebecca tries to take Paris Hilton’s dog at one point. “You can’t take her dog,” Marc tells her.
Rebecca is the engine, Marc the brakes, but the brakes don’t work very well. The more often they get away with it, the more brazen they become. They go to Megan Fox’s home and Nicki practically undulates on the bed. They find a gun in Orlando Bloom’s home and Sam waves it around dangerously, enjoying the power. They find a stash of Rolexes under his bed and hock them with a bouncer at a club (Gavin Rossdale). I don’t know if Coppola intended this but the further they go, the more distant the celebrity names became to me. Eventually they steal from the home of someone named Audrina who was in something called “The Hills.”
As I sat in the theater, watching all this, I wondered whose home I would break into. Jackie Chan’s? E.L. Doctorow’s? And steal what? And why? I liked these people. Why would I take from them? That’s a few steps shy of Mark David Chapman territory, isn’t it? These kids rob whom they love. They want to be immersed in that. They want to be that.
Then they become that.
The lesson of the non-lesson
When the cops come—after the story finally hits the press—they come swiftly and smartly. They’re all rounded up. Of course the kids have been dumb. That’s part of the point.
For a time they get to experience life on the other side of the camera. A few (Marc) are uncomfortable there. A few (Nicki) have lawyers and managers and get interviewed by a reporter from Vanity Fair, who writes the article upon which the movie is based. We get Nicki and her awful mom (Leslie Mann), with her awful vaguely Eastern, me-first homilies, jockeying for position in the interview. “Mom, it’s my interview,” Nicki complains.
The harshest sentences go to the engine, Rebecca, and the brakes, Marc, who each get four years. We see Marc, wearing an orange jumpsuit, and chained to other hardened criminals, taking the bus to LA County Jail. That seems the lesson. You don’t want to be where Marc is at that moment. And the heavy steel door to the LA County Jail is clanged shut. It’s a classic ending.
But it’s not the ending because it’s not really the lesson. Nicki, with her lawyers and managers, gets only 30 days. She’s interviewed about her time in prison, about who she saw there (Lindsay Lohan), about what they were wearing (orange jumpsuits). She spins the whole adventure so it’s about her. “I’m a firm believer in Karma and I think this situation is a huge learning lesson for me,” she says, aping her mom’s me-first, Eastern homilies. “I want to run a non-profit. I want to lead a country one day for all I know.”
That’s the lesson. It’s the lesson of the non-lesson, of nothing learned. It’s all about how you get on the other side of the camera, where real life is.
CAN YOU AFFORD ME?
No, we can’t.