Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Bling Ring

A number of critics have complained that Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” lacks depth and point of view. My criticism is just the opposite: I wanted even less depth and less perspective. For seventy-five minutes Coppola gives us the Frederick Wiseman version of the Bling Ring saga, and, like the first 80 minutes of “Somewhere,” it’s irresistible: an intimate, knowing portrayal of the trappings of wealth and fame (and in the case of “Somewhere,” which remains a four-star film despite the late misstep of having Stephen Dorff express verbally what the whole rest of the movie had conveyed without words, the experience of fame), presented without context or judgment. It’s not that her recent pictures are too long; if anything, they’re so good we wish they lasted longer. But one of these days, she’s going to make one of these terrific movies and not add the ten minutes of moralizing, and it’s going to be the best film of the year.

Marc (Israel Broussard) is the new kid at Indian Hills High, a public school in Calabasas (though I’m fairly confident that’s Emerson Junior High in Westwood standing in for it). Marc is up to the minute on celebrities and fashion and un-self-confident about his looks. He’s not fat, but not svelte, or as he puts it, “not ugly but not A-list, either.” He’s also gay, by the way. The only kid to befriend him on his first day is Rebecca (Katie Chang), a kindred spirit with a tiger mom who’s been expelled from all the good (i.e., private) schools. After they’ve hung out a few times, she asks him whether he knows anyone who’s out of town. Yeah, he says, he has one friend who’s on vacation. (“We’ve gotten together a couple times. He’s pretty hot.”) Perfect, she says. The next thing he knows, they’re inside his friend’s house, and she’s stealing whatever she thinks won’t be missed.

Soon thereafter, he mentions that Paris Hilton will be in Vegas that night for a nightclub opening. Great, Rebecca says, “let’s go to Paris’s. I want to rob.” For the next hour, we’re along for the ride as Marc, Rebecca, and other of their friends (including Emma Watson as Nicki, the character clearly based on Alexis Neiers, who got her own short-lived reality show “Pretty Wild”) invade and rob the estates, homes and condominiums of half a dozen celebrities ranging from the A-list to the C-list. These scenes are alive with the thrill of transgression. It’s not the logistics that generate the excitement – getting in was literally child’s play – nor is it the fear of getting caught. For these aspirational kids (Calabasas is affluent. It is not the Westside), it’s the feeling of vicarious celebrity, of belonging to this exclusive club of which they feel wrongly left out – a club, incidentally, that doesn’t convene in any other world city but L.A. And, of course, it’s the clothes, and the shoes, and the Rolexes, and the wads of hundred dollar bills, and the magnums of champagne. The highest praise these kids can bestow is to call something “chill,” and everything they find is just so damned chill. (Rebecca seems almost as keen to sit a spell and luxuriate in its chillness as actually to steal anything.) 

This is Broussard’s first big part, and he’s enormously empathetic. Chang’s fabulous, too. There’s a very deliberate and practiced quality to her nonchalance that suits the character perfectly. Watson makes Nicki scariest of all: pathological in her ability to shift her story and deflect blame on a dime, megalomaniacal in her worldview (on the courthouse steps, she says, “I want to lead a major organization someday – or a country, for all I know”). Claire Pfister has a great scene as another friend, Chloe, who comes across a gun at Orlando Bloom’s house and for several minutes jokingly – but not jokingly – makes like she’s going to shoot it at Marc, or Nicki, or herself. It’s a cheap way to create tension, but it works. The soundtrack, too, is a must to own.

The last ten minutes of “The Bling Ring” keep it from the level of “Somewhere.” Coppola takes a stab at delving into the relationship between Marc and Rebecca, showing him logging into Facebook after they’ve all been arrested only to find that his best friend has unfriended him (undoubtedly pursuant to Mom’s orders). The arrests themselves are set up in advance – we’re in the families’ homes waiting for the cops to surprise them – which is a markedly different treatment from what’s come before. These scenes, and some of the later dialogue – even that taken from actual transcripts – are played for laughs, especially those between an exasperated Nicki and her relentlessly sunny mother (Leslie Mann), who bases her life on the self-help book “The Secret.” TV news reenactments – from a fictional “Channel 6” -- are used, when actual footage would have better fit the tone. And Coppola seems unsure how to close the picture, ending abruptly with the open-and-shut hearing at which everyone pleads guilty and gets a few years, or a few months, or a fine. The endings, Sofia. You’ve got to work on the endings.

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