Not many movies are made so directly after the true events in them took place, and often a “too soon” haze lingers over them — especially prior to their release. We weren’t sure we wanted a 9/11 docudrama recreating that fateful flight, or a chronicle of the inception of Facebook, or a manhunt-for-Osama thriller — until we got them, but all three films were respectful approaches to the subject matter and brilliant pieces of cinema to boot. Of course The Bling Ring is not attempting to match the loftiness of such films, given that the real-life subjects aren’t nearly as widely known nor as significant on a global scale. But in its own way, The Bling Ring is just as much a time capsule selling “now” right back to us, commenting on recent events without the benefit of distance to look back on them. At the showing I attended, there were chuckles every time that familiar “thump thump thump” of TMZ sounded, every time a familiar celebrity face popped up on the screen. It’s all too familiar. And unlike heavier fare like United 93, The Social Network, and Zero Dark Thirty, The Bling Ring feels exactly right coming just a few short years after the robberies took place. Even moreso than those films, you could easily call The Bling Ring the defining movie of our time.
Yeah. There. I said it.
The Bling Ring is a smart movie about something stupid. It’s a deep movie about the most shallow of subjects. And yet it doesn’t wear its smarts or its depth on its (designer) sleeve. Though we spend a lot of time with the teenagers who were convicted of robbing a slew of celebrity homes at the tail end of the last decade, we never get to know them, exactly. We never scratch past the service. But then, that’s the point. What is there to get to know? Is there really much of a person in there? Sofia Coppola doesn’t have much interest in allowing us to feel for her subjects (though she doesn’t demonize them either). Beyond some lazy and indulgent parenting, there’s no real motive for any of these kids to commit such large-scale crimes so breezily. But their bad behavior isn’t any different from any other rich kid acting out, except that they did it against other rich kids — because what are TMZ’s favorite celebs but a bunch of overgrown spoiled teenagers whose antics are really just cries for attention?
The Bling Ring meets Marc (names changed to protect the not-very-innocent) starting at a new “dropout” school after missing too many classes at his last one. He’s gay and a loner, until he makes “fast friends,” as they say, with Rebecca, who is a bit of a sociopath. (But such a stylish one!) The Bling Ring smartly makes no big deal about Marc’s sexuality, since teens in an affluent California community wouldn’t (though he does have an affinity for a pair of hot pink heels he picks up later at Paris’). Before long, they’re stealing wallets and purses out of unlocked cars and dropping in on out-of-town friends to borrow their Porsche for joyride to Kitson. Marc is always much more nervous and conflicted than Rebecca is, but that doesn’t stop him from doing it. (Marc is the closest thing to “sympathetic” we get from this gang, interestingly, since he’s a sheep following the whims of the flock. But Coppola doesn’t let him off the hook.)
Once the game changes to hitting celebrity homes, this bling twosome becomes a full-on Bling Ring. This also includes Emma Watson as Nicki, based on Alexis Neiers, the only one in the group with serious aspirations to do more than just look like a celebrity, but actually be one. They hit Paris Hilton’s pad first, an amazing beacon of tackiness with seemingly no artwork that doesn’t feature Paris herself. The joke of it is: Paris has so much stuff she doesn’t even notice anything is missing for a good long while.
Were this not a true story, it’d be impossibly hard to buy that the kids had so much ease breaking into over 50 celebrity homes, many of which are merely unlocked. (Paris’ key is under the mat.) But it’s hard to feel very sorry for the well-to-do victims of these crimes if they can’t even bother to install a security alarm to protect their many valuables. If they’re going to be so vulgar about their wealth, don’t they kind of deserve to have at least a fraction of it taken away from them?
That’s the weird morality of The Bling Ring, a movie we watch that feels like it’s watching us right back. The teenagers of the Bling Ring are reckless, careless, and deserve to be caught. They don’t take any precautions to avoid security cams, they brag about their conquests at parties, and many of them quickly fall down the drug-addled rabbit hole that most movies about people rapidly making money depict. But let’s not kid ourselves about having any sympathy for the victims, either. These are the stars we routinely jeer on TMZ and the like. We love ripping apart Paris, Lindsay, Megan, and all the rest — and most of them have done a stupid thing or two (or 100, in Lindsay’s case) that seem to justify our scorn. It’s not that we love to hate them, exactly, but we do love to feel superior to some of the limelight’s biggest stars, even as we also worship them. We envy their luxuries and want to live like them even while picking apart that lifestyle. We’re hypocrites, which is how The Bling Ring makes up complicit in these robberies. Because at the same time we’re judging these kids for their stupid immoral behavior, we’re loving every second of it — and kind of wishing we could go along for the ride.
Sofia Coppola knows that there’s a very thin line between the victims and the perpetrators in The Bling Ring. These teens weren’t after Meryl Streep or Martin Scorsese (who, we can assume, have the good sense to lock their doors when they head out of town). They went for the shallow tabloid celebs whose fame seems rather arbitrary — many of whom, in fact, gained notoriety from reality shows that exploited their rich and glamorous lifestyles. (They picked them in part because they thought they’d be dumb enough to leave their doors unlocked.) Basically, this is just another a case of the fans feeding off the stars, stars who are more lucky than they are talented. Like the Bling Ringers, these celebs have their own DUIs, thefts, and arrests — Lindsay Lohan and Alexis Neiers were actually on the same cell block at the same time — and yes, we the American public have a sick fascination with all things Hollywood, so we’re living vicariously through the teens’ bad behavior just as the teens are living vicariously through their favorite stars. We’re not that different from the Bling Ring, are we?
The Bling Ring takes us on an admittedly (and shamefully) fascinating tour through celebrity homes, giving us the same peep inside so many delighted in via MTV’s Cribs (but with a sinister steal-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-also-rich angle). Entire magazines and websites are devoted to what celebs are wearing and where they’re living — this is like the big screen adaptation of an Us Weekly magazine, with a few more artistic flourishes. A couple of the robberies, especially the early ones, are accompanied by fun pop music and let us indulge in the candy-colored fun of a tour through Paris’ house. But other moments are given a distinctly darker atmosphere, which is how we know Sofia Coppola knows what she’s doing. (Though the anachronistic music and cell phones, more current than 2009, seem like a missed opportunity to really give us a slice-of-life from a mere four years ago.)
Both stylistically and thematically, this film has a lot to do with Sofia Coppola’s earlier works — particularly Marie Antoinette. Coming from a wealthy family herself, Coppola often condemns (or at least critiques) the rich and famous. This feels, in many ways, like a summation of her other films — the restless teens of The Virgin Suicides, the celebrity angle from Lost In Translation and Somewhere, the vapid luxury of Marie Antoinette. Sofia Coppola doesn’t judge the audience with The Bling Ring the way Michael Haneke likes to, but walking out of it, it’s hard not to judge ourselves. There’s no one to root for in this film, not even ourselves, because we all have the same disease. The celebrities are just as guilty as the fans who worship them a little too much, and so who’s stealing from who, exactly? Aren’t we the ones who made them stars in the first place? Don’t they owe us something?
In this day and age, celebrity is a knotty subject and The Bling Ring leaves a lot unsaid. The Nicki character has an outrageously ignorant bit of dialogue or two, but it’s nothing we don’t see on reality TV every day. (If we choose to watch that stuff.) The Bling Ring could even be considered fluff, if you choose to engage with it from a distance, but it kept me thinking all the way through. It’s one of the best modern movies about celebrity, because the real stars are just in the periphery. The movie is actually about the people who obsess over stars, without whom there would be no stars at all.