The Bling Ring

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Sophia Coppola.       Starring Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Georgia Rock, and Leslie Mann.

I do not understand the lukewarm reaction that this film has been receiving from critics and the rather negative reaction from general audience members.  The criticisms run the gamut from saying the film is boring with unlikeable protagonists to the film is relentlessly preachy to the film has no idea of what it wants to achieve.  I thought Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring was a clever, biting satire that holds an unflinching mirror up to our society and its obsession with celebrity and material possessions.

The most baffling reaction is the claim that the film somehow glamorizes the behavior of its depraved teen protagonists.  Just because the protagonists in a film make poor moral choices, does not mean that the film defends or glamorizes those choices.  No one would seriously argue that The Godfather celebrates Michael’s descent into evil, but he is the protagonist of that film.  Similar to her father’s masterpiece, Sofia Coppola allows her story to unfold without overt commentary, but she does critique the immorality of the young protagonists of her most recent film.

The Bling Ring is based on actual events that occurred four years ago, when a group of Californian teenagers broke into and robbed celebrities’ homes, after discovering the addresses and the celebrities’ absence via Google.  Coppola changed the names of all the characters, but the basic concept of the story is unchanged.  Socially awkward Marc (Israel Broussard) is befriended by popular Rebecca (Katie Chang) on his first day at an alternative high school.  He is there for skipping too many classes at his old school, and she was caught with an illegal substance.

Very quickly, the two are attending parties together, where Rebecca shows Marc how to steal from unlocked cars.  They then move up to the homes of their acquaintances who are on vacation.  Finally, they hit the gold mine: homes of celebrities who are away.  Soon Rebecca’s close circle of friends joins her and Marc as they hit the homes of Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, Orlando Bloom, and Lindsay Lohan to name a few.  The names of the victimized celebrities are unchanged from the actual crimes.

The device that Coppola uses to criticize the choices of the teens is a documentary style of interviews that occasionally interrupt the story.  These interviews are conducted by reporters and the teens’ lawyer, who wish to understand the rationale behind the burglaries.  The interviews give no reason, but they highlight the cluelessness, selfishness, and complete lack of growth from all the characters throughout the entire film.  One character insists that the burglaries and arrest were a good thing for her, because it forced her to stay positive and learn from the experience.  What she learns, she never says.  None of the characters ever admit that their actions were wrong.  Instead they concoct absurd rationales, attempt to analyze what the others were thinking, and shift the blame onto them.

One of the effects of embracing sin is that it makes one stupid.  The Bling Ring puts that idea into clear relief.  The choices of the teens become increasingly reckless as the film progresses.  They posts pictures of their conquests on Facebook; when a surveillance video is posted on the news, they do not care, because it is too dark to identify anything about the thieves.  They even enjoy the gossip and buzz that the media is creating about the mysterious “Bling Ring.”  When finally caught, they are more interested in how they will be received by the public; none of them are concerned about potential jail sentences.

The film’s other major critique is America’s obsession with fame and fortune.  The media makes a huge deal about the Bling Ring, and the public is extremely fascinated.  After being exposed, Marc receives over eight-hundred friend requests on Facebook.  The parents of the teens are equally ignorant and obsessed with worldly values.  Leslie Mann plays a mother obsessed with karma and “the law of attractions,” who “homeschools” her daughters, by which she means she forces them to spend the day exuding positive energy so they will be successful, like Angelina Jolie.

Among the young actors, Emma Watson really stands out in a role very different from Hermione.  She is terrific as the daughter of a cheerfully clueless mother obsessed with New Ageism.   Watson captures the wide range of her character’s emotions: insecurity, arrogance, and feigned regret.  She does a very good job of emulating an American accent.  If someone had never seen Harry Potter, it would be a credible mistake to think she is American.

Coppola’s direction impressively sets the mood for the film.  She opens the film with five of the teens climbing over a fence, not knowing that they are being observed by a security camera.  When they break into the house, the opening titles begin with a blaring soundtrack reminiscent of an alarm.  Coppola’s selection of aggressive, rhythmic pop music underscores the destructiveness of the teenagers’ behavior.  She also captures the irony that pervades the movie.  One scene is dark yet amusing as Watson’s character claims to have learned from her mistakes and overcome them.  It is quite clear she has learned nothing.  Another scene has a parent fretting about her daughter’s nutrition just as the police come to arrest her daughter.

Does The Bling Ring promote and idolize theft and celebrity worship?  To me, that seems as absurd as claiming Schindler’s List promotes and idolizes anti-Semitism and Nazism.  If that comparison is overly snarky and condescending, I apologize, but I really cannot fathom how anyone could argue The Bling Ring ends up defending the behavior of the teens.  It is rather a thought provoking film about the dangers of celebrity worship that makes a lasting impression through impressive performances, sharp directing, and an unsettling use of irony.

 

Content Advisory: Some obscene language, much teenage drug use, some mildly sexualized dancing, semi-risqué outfits, and portrayal of theft and other crimes.                                MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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