I don’t give a crap about women’s shoes, yet there is a shot of Paris Hilton’s shoe closet, about halfway through The Bling Ring, that made me go slack-jawed. This is what a vastly talented filmmaker like Sofia Coppola can do, and she does it often through this decadent and problematic piece of work.
The movie is based on “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales detailing a real-life series of crimes carried out by Southern California high school students who broke into celebrities’ homes and stole thousands of dollars’ worth of clothes, jewelry, and accessories. The movie begins with Marc (Israel Broussard), a slovenly and probably gay teenager who befriends a girl named Rebecca (Katie Chang), who introduces him to her friends, sulky blonde Chloe (Claire Julien), aspiring reality TV star Nicki (Emma Watson), and Nicki’s tagalong adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga). Already filching cash and clothes from rich people who leave their doors unlocked while away from home, the group hits on the idea of robbing stars while they’re out of town doing celebrity stuff. Marc goes along because his hot new friends make him feel cool and turn him into a sharp dresser.
Coppola’s films have always been more about atmosphere than plot, and here she looks to evoke a single, unbroken mood in this brief 87-minute film. The movie is episodic in form, with the teens going from one house to another, gawking at the celebs’ possessions, and wearing their ill-gotten gains to parties and nightclubs. Paris Hilton keeps her mansion festooned with pictures of herself, a detail that feels both true to life and like something invented for a Sofia Coppola film. The director pulls off a mesmerizing single-take, long-shot sequence when Marc and Rebecca hit Audrina Patridge’s house, getting in and out with a haul of swag in less than two minutes.
The director films these teens’ crimes with a marked detachment that opens her up to charges of glorifying them or at least indulging in the same label worship that her characters do. True, Coppola never could resist running her camera over a fine fabric, but in this case the filmmaker needs to give us some idea of the trappings of glamour and luxury that seduce the kids. Cinematographers Christopher Blauvelt and the late Harris Savides (to whose memory the film is dedicated) turn this romp through the closets of the rich and famous into a typically Coppola-esque feast for the eyes.
I don’t need traditional story beats, and I don’t need a filmmaker to underline her themes. What I did find missing here was much penetrating insight into these children who’ve been carefully taught by parents, peers, and the pop culture at large to value all the wrong things. We do get a glimmer of that in a scene when Nicki talks to Vanity Fair after her arrest, and her mom (Leslie Mann) keeps trying to horn in on the interview and make the story all about herself. There isn’t enough of this, though, and often the movie feels like it’s simply hanging out with them. Pathological narcissists can be fun on the big screen (see: Young Adult), but Coppola seems unwilling to unleash her full fire on these profoundly unself-aware wannabes.
Fortunately, Watson has no such scruples, and she gives a lethal performance as Nicki, an amoral clotheshorse who never encounters a situation without thinking about how it can promote her brand. Tossing off her lines with a Californian “whatever” in her voice, Watson pouts sexily and strikes poses when she’s not going wide-eyed at the idea that her activities might merit prison time. Of course, Nicki’s not so naïve that she fails to save herself by throwing her friends to the wolves or to paint herself as a humanitarian by spouting platitudes from The Secret. “I think this situation is a huge learning lesson for me,” says Nicki, who has not learned one thing from her experience. “It’s an opportunity for me to expand and grow as a spiritual human being on this planet.” Somehow through eight Harry Potter movies, we failed to notice how funny Watson can be. Nicki isn’t the most complex character here, but Watson’s comic skills make her the most alive and, for better and worse, make the soulless Nicki into the soul of The Bling Ring.
The Bling Ring
Starring Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, and Emma Watson. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, based on Nancy Jo Sales’ article. Rated R.