Totally True Hollywood Story: Coppola's barbed, subtle "Bling Ring" doesn't judge the emptiness

The Bling Ring (2013)
90 min., rated R. 

Sofia Coppola has made her needlessly reviled performance in her father's "The Godfather Part III" nothing but a career footnote, now a distinctive filmmaker who continues her auteurism and builds upon her understated, ethereal mood and original voice behind the camera. Her fifth feature film, "The Bling Ring," is the connective tissue to her previous work ("The Virgin Suicides," "Lost in Translation," "Marie Antoinette," and "Somewhere") without cannibalizing herself. From the Vanity Fair article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins by Nancy Jo Sales, based on true events in 2008 to 2009, "The Bling Ring" (not to be confused with the same-titled Lifetime Movie) is a slyly penetrating, alarming and acerbic ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama of the unsettling obsession with fame, America's famous-for-being-famous celebrity-tabloid culture and emphasis on materialism and its influence on the Millennial Generation. It's bound to be quite divisive among pundits and audiences, and if "The Bling Ring" didn't already feel like a scary documentary, it would make for biting satire.

The insecure Marc (Israel Broussard) is the new kid at Indian Hills High School in Calabasas, California, and in need of a confidence boost. He's quickly noticed and taken under the wing of Rebecca (Katie Chang), who then introduces him to her favorite pastime of walking down the street at night and checking for unlocked cars to rob. Eventually, with Rebecca obsessed with trendy fashion labels and hanging out at the same clubs as the rich and famous, Marc falls into a tight-knit group, which includes reckless Chloe (Claire Julien), superficial Nicki (Emma Watson), and Nicki's adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga). Just by scouting out idolized A-listers' McMansions via Google and using social media to determine when the homes would be empty, the kids go robbing, orin their mindsshopping. They just want the chic clothes and lifestyle, no matter the consequences of committing these crimes, which are more scandalous than making a sex tape.

Whereas most filmmakers would condemn or merely satirize these kids (who are, yes, shallow, entitled, narcissistic, single-minded, and barely redeemable), writer-director Coppola wisely places her human subjects at a distance and holds a mirror up to our vacuous youth culture. Her approach neither celebrates nor judges the characters and their criminal indiscretions but hands the judgment call over to the audience. Though we're not really asked to sympathize with them too much, the members of the so-called "Bling Ring" (or "Burglar Bunch") are just impressionable products of a wrongheaded culture that forgets celebrities are people, too. As they pose and snap "selfies" for Facebook while receiving bottle service at the club and jump up and down over the celeb-worn clothing they try on, we see them for who they are or aspire to be. They think that if they preen in the latest fashion and act the part, they can join the cool and famous crowd. Is it really their fault when they're being brainwashed, living in a bubble removed from reality, and force-fed TMZ and OK! Magazine? The robbed celebrities themselves, including Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, and Lindsay Lohan, are at fault for leaving keys under the welcome mat or side doors and windows unlocked, making the kids' break-ins feel more like walk-ins. In the wrong hands, gazing upon such vapid and empty character goals could have resulted in a vapid and empty film itself, but Coppola knows better with a subtle, commanding hand that speaks volumes and knowing this milieu like the back of her hand.

The casting clicks across the board and Coppola astutely guides the performances. Still young and stretching her muscles as a versatile, intuitive actress without vanity, Emma Watson obliterates her Hermione Granger persona here. As the vain, deluded Nicki, she is hilariously deadpan and spot-on, perfecting the dippy Valley Girl speak ("So cute!"), but she doesn't play her as a joke or mocking caricature, either. What's even more chilling than Nicki believing she's a spiritual human being with philanthropic ambition is that this young woman (Alexis Neiers) actually exists and even gave birth to her own reality show, "Pretty Wild." Though Watson is the most familiar face of the young characters (as well as Farmiga, Vera's sister), the story is really told from the perspective of Marc, played by up-and-comer Broussard. With the actor's humble and charismatic turn, Marc easily garners the most empathy out of the bunch, as he just wants to be accepted and have "A-list looks," and the film refreshingly never makes a big deal about the character's sexual orientation (he calls another male "hot" and tries on a pair of pumps). His long dance in front of a computer cam to Esther Dean's "Drop It Low" is both endearing and pitiful. Newcomer Chang also has her breakout role as the de facto ringleader and layers Rebecca as more than just a mean girl. Lastly, the casting of Leslie Mann is a real kick; she's sharp as Nicki's equally vacant but well-intentioned mom, who homeschools her girls, practices the philosophy of Rhonda Byrne's book "The Secret," and feeds them morning Adderall like multivitamins. 

As Coppola has tackled the unglamorous side of fame time and time again, "The Bling Ring" marks her snappiest and arguably most entertaining piece of work, especially when compared to the languid, melancholy slow-burn of "Somewhere." Studded with a killer soundtrack, including Sleigh Bells' poppy, bass-blaring "Crown on the Ground" in the opening scene as Rebecca says, "Let's go shopping," and an overall sense of beautiful craftsmanship, the film is worth its salt to be in the upper echelon of her outstanding oeuvre. Speaking of craftsmanship, the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides (who gets a credit dedication) and Christopher Blauvelt bring a low-key transcendence to the screen. One impressive set-piece, shot from the hills, very slowly pushes in toward a glass box house as Rebecca and Marc run through and steal valuables. Also, courtesy of Coppola's direction, there is a perp walk that cleverly plays like a cat walk with the paparazzi. Adding a degree of impact to this being based on true events, the heist in Paris Hilton's house was shot in her real house (with her permission, of course), the socialite's face being found on every throw pillow and in every picture frame.

In a way, "The Bling Ring" is the complementary flip side of Harmony Korine's hypnotic critique "Spring Breakers," released earlier this year by the same distributor, A24 Films. Half of the soulless chicks from "Spring Breakers" make the whole "Bling Ring" look like humanitarians, but together, these films would make an interesting double-bill on a skewed version of the American Dream. While it would've been nice to dig a little deeper into characterization over presenting each and every heist, "The Bling Ring" is no less barbed, provocative, or observant because of Coppola's choices. It not only shines like bling but has more insightful takeaway than any of these kids could comprehend.

Grade: A -