I am a Sofia Coppola apologist. It’s common opinion that Lost in Translation is her best movie — I won’t argue that — but I adore her last two films, Marie Antoinette and Somewhere, which were divisive both critically and commercially. They are deeply nuanced and beautifully shot explorations of privilege. The common thread in all three isn’t that materialism is bad, but that it can only displace the privilege’s forced isolation for so long. Coppola’s new film, The Bling Ring, tackles a lot of similar themes; the only difference is that I really did not like it at all.
The Bling Ring shares a lot in common with her past work. It’s a character study of deeply unhappy wealthy people. Marie Antoinette, brilliantly acted by Kirsten Dunst, is about a tragic figure of her own environment. (Imagine: you are fourteen-year-old queen, given all the power in France, everyone desires you — how could that not fuck you up?) Somewhere applies a similar narrative to modern actors. Despite Johnny Marco’s (Stephen Dorff) very successful career as an action star, he struggles to find satisfaction in his life. (Predictably, he does not find happiness in sleeping with lots of attractive women.) Kyle Smith concludes his review for The New York Post by asking, “Are we supposed to feel sorry for a guy who has squandered his freedom for a cliche of alienation?” Coppola’s motivation is clear: we are. And for those who appreciate Somewhere, we do. The fact that Coppola can make (at least some) audiences empathize with a successful version of Stephen Dorff is her most impressive talent as a filmmaker and storyteller.
Like Somewhere, The Bling Ring takes place in the richest, most glamorous boroughs of Los Angeles. But the terrain looks entirely different. Stephen Dorff’s LA is unsure of what the city represents (I mean, the movie is called Somewhere). There are long, meandering shots of Dorff driving his Ferrari 360 Modena through the streets of Hollywood. The camera trails behind, giving us context of his surroundings, the place that he is not a product, but a victim of.
The LA of The Bling Ring is just as much about the celebrity culture of the city. The movie follows a group of high school kids who, in real life, regularly broke in and plundered the homes of A-list celebrities (Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom). But Coppola keeps the camera focused more tightly on her subjects — a visual departure from her past work, but equally stunning cinematographically.
And yet here, those characters are less interesting, less nuanced than anything we’ve encountered in a Sofia Coppola feature. The movie is interspersed with voiceovers from its protagonists, who show varying levels of confusion and self-awareness (though more of the former than the later), removing the interior ambiguity that creates such compassion for the characters in her earlier work (think about the inaudible whisper in the final scene of Lost in Translation).
The heart of The Bling Ring is Marc (Israel Broussard), who is skeptical of the robberies from the get-go. But he is really into ring leader Rebecca (Katie Chang) who peer pressures him into performing these break ins with her (“Don’t be a pussy.”). The weak link of this film is Nicki (Emma Watson). For all her talents, Watson cannot pull off a character that is both self-obsessed and self-aggrandizing. Her California accent is over the top, as are the ridiculous lines she delivers (“I’m a firm believer in karma and I think the situation is a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I wanna lead a country one day for all I know.”). These jokes aren’t as funny as one would hope because Watson can’t deliver these things with any conviction. (It also doesn’t help that she is a minor character in the first half, so it’s jarring to see so much of her in the second, and with such obvious, broad dialogue.)
I once heard John Green, author of young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars, say that teenagers are selfish, but for good reason. To paraphrase, he said teens are so preoccupied trying to figure out who they are that they don’t have time to think about anyone else. This, I believe, is the smartest thing ever said about adolescence.
The kids in The Bling Ring show no such dilemma. They know who they are. I could understand that if I was rich and entitled, that I might get into a lot of trouble. But why do these kids want what Paris Hilton has? Because they like clothes? Because their parents are absent? I wracked my brain to think of something reasonable.
It’s not a spoiler to say the film ends with the kids being caught. And yet, they show no remorse. With The Bling Ring, there is no motive, and therefore, you’re left with no story, no real characters. Instead it’s just a shell of scenes (some brilliant) that ultimately amount to a depiction of a lifestyle you will never understand. Maybe that’s the point, but it makes for very disappointing cinema.
The credits roll and play Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids.” It’s the perfect coda to a movie about, well, super rich kids. But Ocean’s characters have more depth and understanding than this hour-and-a-half-long movie. The song opens:
Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce
Too many bowls of that green, no Lucky Charms
The maids come around too much
Parents ain’t around enough
This half verse says more than the entirety of the film. Sure, blaming the parents is an easy way out, but it’s a device The Bling Ring keeps alluding to (Rebecca has divorced parents; Watson’s character is home schooled by her mother).
The movie does nothing that the Nancy Jo Sales’s Vanity Fair article doesn’t do more succinctly. Both visually and philosophically, The Bling Ring is about closeness instead of distance, a departure from Coppola’s previous films. But in that, we’ve lost the space to understand what she’s trying to say.