Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Bling Ring - Dir. Sofia Coppola

“I think we just wanted to be part of the lifestyle. The lifestyle that everybody kinda wants.”

(This review contains spoilers)

Inspired by the true events and the subsequent Vanity Fair article, The Bling Ring recounts the story of a group of privileged Californian teenagers who stole $3million worth of clothing and jewelry from the houses of Hollywood celebrities. What’s particularly extraordinary about The Bling Ring is how Coppola has managed to create a film that is on the surface as shallow as its protagonists, but also thoughtful and mildly angry in its subtext.

It would have been all too easy for Coppola to take a seat above her subjects and beat us over the head with the notion that these kids are a bunch of deluded narcissists. Instead she observes quietly from the wings whilst the gang gleefully raids through the material wealth of these Hollywood celebrities. By just observing, Coppola allows the inherently risible nature of the material to shine through all by itself.

Coppola brilliantly captures the flashy but repetitive lifestyle that the kids enjoy. Marc (Israel Broussard) is an impressionable teenager who is just happy to be part of a gang after too many false starts in life. Rebecca (Katie Chang) gradually takes control of the group and ignores Marc’s protestations when he feels that the situation is getting out of hand. Marc is undoubtedly complicit in these activities, but Coppola carefully shows how Rebecca manipulated Marc in order to get her way. Marc is the one character that Coppola seems to sympathize with, but she isn’t averse to showing him in a less positive light. One short scene shows Marc using his Grandma’s house to store some of the clothes; he leaves with the briefest of goodbyes as she stands there a little dumbstruck, a welcoming plate of biscuits in her hand.

In between their stealing and subsequent shopping sprees the kids go to parties, take endless photos and dance the night away. The next morning they relive the night before by uploading their photos to Facebook (because as we know, nothing really happened until its posted on Facebook). During the day, they go to school, smoke at the beach and trawl through the latest gossip sites. Eat. Sleep. Rave. Repeat. You are meant to be bored by it all, just as you are meant to be exhausted by the excessive hedonism of Jordan Belfourt in The Wolf of Wall Street. As with Scorsese’s film, The Bling Ring has a cameo appearance from someone who is either oblivious to how the film is portraying them or is blasé enough not to care.

Paris Hilton was one of the first celebrities to be burgled and Hilton kindly allowed Coppola to film those scenes in her real house. Coppola shows us Hilton’s house in all of its obnoxious glory, from every overstuffed closet to the cushions adorned with Paris’ own face. The staggering audacity of these kids to undertake these burglaries is matched only by the staggering ease with which they were able to successfully carry them out. Hilton left a set of keys under her doormat, didn’t activate the alarms and didn’t notice anything missing until the sixth burglary. What did Hilton get in return for this unflattering portrait? Probably just what she wanted, a credited appearance as Paris Hilton (for a split second cameo) to help her acting career (Kirsten Dunst has a similar cameo appearance but isn’t credited). I don’t for one second suggest that Hilton deserved to be burgled, but she (and the other celebrities) could have made it a lot more difficult for the thieves. The film’s perspective never strays from the teenagers, but uses every opportunity to point out just how easy it was for them to get away with it.

So far, so detached from Coppola who could have (and has been, by Rachel Bilson no less) accused of glorifying the burglars. However Coppola, like Scorsese with The Wolf of Wall Street, has a point to make. She doesn’t just ask “What drove these kids to burgle these homes?” but also “Why do these kids appear to be so vapid?”. The answers to her questions stem from arguably the most fame hungry member of The Bling Ring, Nicki Moore (Emma Watson).

For most of the film, Marc and Rebecca are set up to be our main characters. However, following the streak of arrests in the wake of the Lindsay Lohan burglary, Coppola makes Nicki her central character. It’s a bizarre tangent to take but it accurately reflects how the real life case played out. Marc was the misled outcast, Rebecca was a borderline psychopath; two deeply interesting characters, but both largely retreated away from the media spotlight (in part due to their lengthier prison terms). Nicki on the other hand uses her new found infamy to kick-start her career as a celebrity and the media were all too happy to oblige. This is where Coppola gets angry: angry with the parents, the media and arguably society as a whole.

When she isn’t partying or stealing, Nicki is at home taking her Adderall and listening to the hippy-dippy teachings of her home schooling mother Laurie (Leslie Mann). It’s not the most stimulating of home lives and Nicki escapes to the clubs and bars whenever she can, along with her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga). At the same point where Marc and Rebecca were withdrawn from the media spotlight, Laurie allows Nicki to take centre stage. Laurie gleefully welcomes Vanity Fair journalist Kate into their home to interview Nicki and can’t stop herself from butting in.

Kate tries to engage with Nicki but struggles, almost to the point of exasperation; she doesn’t appear to write anything down in the entire interview. “What’s your goal or life plan, if you have one?” she asks.  Nicki’s answer is so empty and aimless, but it provides a potential answer to Coppola’s questions. The only goal that these kids seemed to share was to be part of the “lifestyle”. They weren’t burgling these houses just to get clothes and jewelry; they wanted to walk in the shoes of these celebrities. Their own lives had no direction or focus, so instead they tried to become celebrities; attracted by the glitz and glamour that the reality television shows and gossip websites dish out daily.  The scary thing is, some of them succeeded or were allowed to succeed and that is something Coppola doesn’t let us forget.

The Bling Ring is available now on all formats. Images and trailer courtesy of A24 Films.

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