I count myself among the fans of Sofia Coppola, a member of Hollywood’s most notable dynasty and the director of Lost in Translation and Somewhere. Coppola’s hazy, stylish direction has served her well in the past and has also positioned her as one of the most interesting directors working today. So it was with great curiosity that I sat down to check out her latest, a fact-based crime drama about a group of privileged California teens who robbed the houses of multiple Hollywood A-listers. Unfortunately, I soon realized Coppola’s dreamy, distant MO was precisely the wrong approach for The Bling Ring to take. Though gorgeously filmed, The Bling Ring is infuriatingly feather-light and shies away from turning a critical eye to the actions of its characters.
That’s not to say that The Bling Ring is a total failure. On the contrary, Coppola gets some great performances out of her young cast. Most notably, Emma Watson plays way against type as vacuous socialite Nicki and completely pulls it off. If the film had been released in the fall, I could easily see A24 making an Oscar bid for the actress. Watson, best known for her role as the brainy wizard Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise, commits to Nicki’s contemptible selfishness but never delves into caricature. It’s a tribute to her performance that Nicki is never dismissed as a simpleton; conversely, she’s one of the film’s most fascinating, complex creations.
Katie Chang is also great as the Bling Ring’s dauntless leader Rebecca, who’s terrifying in her obsession with everything related to her celebrity idols. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from her, because Chang inflects every line of dialogue with dozens of emotions all tangled up in each other. Israel Broussard, who acts as our entry point into the dangerously fame-oriented world of restless California youth, holds his own against the girls, though his contributions to the film are rarely as compelling as Chang’s or Watson’s. Leslie Mann, in a small but important supporting role, presents The Bling Ring‘s protagonists’ inevitable future, playing a laughably self-deluded single mother committed to teaching her greedy, hollow-eyed daughters about their innate goodness.
The film is equipped with a terrific, pulsating soundtrack that speaks volumes about its characters. Sleigh Bells, Kanye West, Azealia Banks and Frank Ocean are the obvious stand-outs, ranting about the frivolous, drug-fueled lifestyles led by the film’s fame-obsessed subjects, The dance-ready soundtrack provides The Bling Ring with an eerily fluorescent, audiovisual glow.
Surprisingly, Coppola’s detached direction is the film’s weakest link. As she captures the rise and fall of the Bling Ring, cameras hover around the characters as if a documentary crew is filming the proceedings, recording every juicy sound bite and piece of body language. Coppola’s ultimate failure is her unwillingness to probe beneath the surface of her characters’ actions and find out what in their lives drove them to commit such petty, plainly dumb crimes.
The Bling Ring attempts to satirize the media’s focus on the celebrity lifestyle without ever getting to the heart of what makes that lifestyle so appealing to many in the first place. The film suffers because its characters are never portrayed as complete individuals; instead, they’re empty vessels designed to project Coppola’s oddly simplistic ideas about the actual crimes. Perhaps that’s the point, that there’s nothing going on beneath the glamorous exteriors of her protagonists, but that vacuity does not a very compelling drama make.
Instead of the in-depth character study that I had expected, The Bling Ring is a middling, skin-deep retelling of the Hollywood Hills burglaries. Though Coppola’s actors turn in great performances, The Bling Ring is ultimately as disappointingly hollow and superficial as its protagonists. C+