Thursday, June 20, 2013

'Bling Ring' explores a gimme-more ethos

Sophia Coppola's latest is lively, engaging and a little too obvious.
The Bling Ring might be director Sophia Coppola's liveliest film to date. Working with a mostly unfamiliar cast of young actors, Coppola brilliantly recreates the morality-free atmosphere in which a group of California teen-agers set out to burglarize the homes of celebrities.

In looking at these materialistic, style-obsessed young people, Coppola can't help but make us complicit in their avaricious ways. Would you turn away if you had an opportunity to look into Paris Hilton's closets? Would you decline if offered a chance to savor a bit of the opulence that surrounds some of the well-heeled folks in show business?

Coppola's flash-obsessed characters understand that at certain social levels, the car you drive and shoes you wear can be taken as worthy expressions of character. She knows that to some, a watch is more than an instrument with which to tell time: It's a statement of status and taste, a bejeweled form of validation that puts one in the same high-living stratosphere as the those who get recognized -- even if it's only for being recognizable.

The Bling Ring does not tell a story about latter-day Robin Hoods. These high-schoolers don't rob from the rich and give to the poor. They rob from the rich for their own amusement -- half expecting that their victims are so well stocked they won't notice anyway. They seem to be children of affluence upset that they're not children of monstrous money. For them, theft becomes a perverted form of shopping.

F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly told Ernest Hemingway that the rich "are different from you and me." Hemingway supposedly replied, "Yeah, they have more money."

These kids believe that the line between the rich and them easily can be blurred: The rich accumulate; so do these youngsters. Does it really matter how they cross the acquisitive threshold to get to the diamond-studded goodies?

Rebecca (Katie Chang) is the author of the burglary scheme. Rebecca enlists the help of her pal Marc (Israel Broussard), a new kid at her school. Together, they invade Paris Hilton's home after reading (on-line, of course) that Hilton is out of town.

The gang also includes Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Nicki (Emma Watson), teens who are being home-schooled by a mother (Leslie Mann) who specializes in motivational aphorisms. Chloe (Claire Julien) also joins the group, which occasionally expands to include other teen-agers, as well.

Together, these youngsters apply the art of breaking and entry at the homes of various celebrities.

In some ways, The Bling Ring is a glitzy sociological exercise that reveals what life is like in a strata impenetrable to most of us. Fueled by a near ravenous energy, The Bling Ring eventually begins to look like an episode of something we might call "Lifestyles of the rich and vapid."

Mostly, these young thieves are oblivious to any moral and psychological implications of a) taking other people's stuff and b) craving all these expensive trinkets in the first place.

These are cunning, self-absorbed kids. In her best performance to date, Watson (of Harry Potter fame) demonstrates that Nicki has a chameleon-like willingness to project herself as situations dictate. After being caught, she says she's learned a lesson and now aspires to charitable work. Her responses sound as if they might have been prepared for the question portion of a beauty contest.

The tone, energy, performances and voyeuristic tug of The Bling Ring prove considerable, but it's equally true that at the end of the movie's glitzy crime spree, I was left to wonder whether this true story -- reported in a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales -- afforded Coppola sufficient opportunity to leave an audience with something more substantial.

Coppola (Marie Antoionette and Somewhere) is a skilled enough filmmaker to keep us engaged by The Bling Ring even as we fret that she may have demonstrated something some of us already suspected: Shallow people really are ... well ... shallow.

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