I just stepped out of seeing Sofia Coppola’s latest film The Bling Ring and felt the need to comment on the film rather immediately. The movie follows a group of Beverly Hills high school students as they begin a crime ring walking into the unlocked doors of celebrity homes and stealing what the film tells us is over $4 million worth of merchandise. The celebrities, it turns out, are definitely stupid, as leaving your door unlocked when you own that much stuff is foolish, but this wasn’t the most striking element of the film.
Let me first say that Coppola is a director I admire. She’s got her own style and is certainly not afraid to make films that are off center in Hollywood. Her last film was Somewhere, an oddly sweet little film that meandered and asked questions about fame and adulthood. And of course there’s her to-date masterpiece Lost in Translation, which is an incredible showcase in sparsity of dialogue while still telling an earnest and human story about loneliness, not to mention resurrecting the career of Bill Murray and launching Scarlet Johansson into the social consciousness. I also was intrigued by The Virgin Suicides, which came before Translation, as well as the odd but striking Marie Antoinette, so it’s clear that she, one of the few women to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, is a talented individual.
Then comes this little addition to her filmography. To be honest, it mostly made me sad. Here area group of young people who are so driven by social status, materialism and the rush of stimulation that they never seem like real people. To their credit, the actors nail the stereotypical Los Angeles teen in both their interactions with each other and the world around them, but it isn’t entirely clear what the intention of the film is. Does Coppola condone the behavior? It is certainly glamorized through much of the film’s rather short 90 minute running time, but neither the director or the characters seem to be willing to make a comment on the socialization of these kids. Based on true events, the teens eventually get their comeuppance, but one has to wonder how much of this is merely because of Coppola’s desire to tell the truth, even if none of the assailants choose to.
The most disturbing thing, though, is that there are actually kids who did these horrible things. These aren’t needy children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from; maybe they don’t live in the lap of luxury, but they are certainly living on the same floor of the building. This makes the thievery, underage substance abuse and overall disregard for authority all the more appalling. On top of everything else (and this is merely a reflection of our justice system more than anything else), the punishments seem not to fit the crime (the worst jail sentence received is 4 years, while one member sees the inside of a cell for 30 days), further illustrating the disconnect that seems to exist here.
The most telling moment for me came towards the end. Marc, the lone boy in the group, is talking to a writer for Vanity Fair about the “fame” he’s received because of the incident and how weird and “awkward” it is. He tells the writer how it seems to show society’s obsession with a type of Bonnie and Clyde. I think he–and the film–miss the point, though. It’s a fascination with celebrity, earned or otherwise (check the reality TV “fame” fad), that draws people in. It’s not about how talented, clever or funny you are, it’s about selling a story. Sadly, this one sold; but the irony is that is stories just like this that convinced these kids they could do this and get away with it in the first place.
As for the film, it does not live of to Coppola’s tremendous talent. There are too many scenes of the kids busting into the houses, stealing stuff, partying and driving around LA whenever and wherever they like. And it lacks the heart of her earlier films, which isn’t surprising considering there’s not a single relatable character in the lot, even though I think Marc–who is not nearly as rich or ridiculous as the girls in the bunch, at least not initially–is supposed to be our portal into the world. But the film never allows us to connect with him or anyone else, and it’s impossible to feel sympathetic. For someone who is usually so good with creating real, genuinely honest characters, Coppola falls way short here. She’s clearly capable of much more given her track record, but is unable to save this mess of a story.