Antonioni watches too much TMZ in writer-director Sofia Coppola’s fifth feature, a detached portrait of hollowed-out youth culture. Addicted to brand names, pseudo-celebrity and status updates while seemingly incapable of any meaningful human interaction, the children of The Bling Ring aren’t just gazing into the void; they are the void. Forget about World War Z. This is the real zombie movie opening this weekend.
Working from a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, Coppola lightly fictionalizes the true-life 2009 tale of Hollywood teens who burglarized the homes of their favorite tabloid stars to the tune of some $3 million in shiny designer stuff. But they weren’t in it for the money; these kids were quite well off. No, it was about celebrity—their lust to bask in the reflected stardom, however furtively under cover of night.
On the page, this sounds ripe for a raucous satire, but despite a few occasionally hilarious grace notes, Coppola is too sensitive a filmmaker to give us another Spring Breakers. The Bling Ring is a much moodier picture; she seems genuinely curious about these kids and what makes them tick. The result is an introspective movie about people to whom introspection is a foreign concept. There’s no there there, which I think is probably the point. But it gets awfully old.
The delicate wisp of a storyline finds new kid at school Marc (Israel Broussard) falling in with klepto Rebecca (Katie Chang) and a mostly interchangeable gaggle of blondes. They hang out at the same nightclubs as Kirsten Dunst, get wasted and take an awful lot of selfies. Casual afterschool larceny escalates to burglary one night when they decide to drop by Paris Hilton’s house. Celebrity gossip websites make it easy to find out if she’s in town, and they correctly assume that Paris would be dumb enough to leave a spare key under the doormat. (It’s on an Eiffel Tower keychain because of course it is.)
A towering monument to toxic vanity and terrible taste, the Hilton homestead, I initially thought, was the result of Coppola and the production designer getting a bit too carried away with gaudy sight gags. Later, I discovered that Paris allowed pal Sofia to shoot inside her actual house. So, it’s true: You can’t make this shit up.
After that, The Bling Ring mostly drives around in circles, with our gang ripping off Orlando Bloom, Audrina Patridge and, finally, Rebecca’s white whale role model, Lindsay Lohan. The movie is broken up with flash-forwards to the kids offering carefully rehearsed sound bytes for reporters, as if auditioning for a reality show of their own. It’s all well and good for about 45 minutes, which, unfortunately, is only half the length of the movie.
Coppola’s last two films, Marie Antoinette and Somewhere, fell prey to a similar design flaw. After establishing an evocative mood and mileu, the pictures just sort of drift away for a little while before eventually arriving at their preordained endings. They say there are no second acts in American lives, and apparently not in post-Lost in Translation Sofia Coppola movies, either.
The Bling Ring’s all-important surfaces are granted a sickly digital pallor thanks to cinematographers Chistopher Blauvelt and the late, great Harris Savides. In the lead roles, Chang and Broussard sleepwalk through their scenes in a vaguely narcotized trance. It’s a chilling depiction of emptiness, also tedious.
The film gets a much-needed shot in the arm whenever we return to Emma Watson’s Nicki, who spends a too-small part pouting across the picture in full bitch-goddess reign. She’s calculating, conniving and exudes an amazing disdain for everybody and everything that’s simultaneously repulsive and kind of absurdly hot. Nicki’s being home-schooled by her dingbat mom (Leslie Mann, excelling, as always, at being annoying) in a curriculum based on Rhonda Byrne’s self-help book, The Secret, which is a flourish so funny, it must be true. She sees the arrest as her chance to finally make it in Hollywood, announcing to reporters that it was an “important learning lesson” and what Nicki would really like to do is run an important philanthropic organization or a country. Watson tears into every exchange with a vigor that knocks Coppola’s anesthetized aesthetic clear off its axis. She seems to have strutted in from an Election-era Alexander Payne movie that I wished I could have been watching instead.
It’s somehow amusing that Watson’s already a bigger star than any of the flash-in-the-pans burglarized by The Bling Ring, and Nicki seems poised for similar status when she gets out of jail. I’d almost like to see a self-reflexive meta-sequel in which kids break into Nicki’s house, and Emma Watson’s, too.