The Bling Ring examines America’s currency of glam
By Glenn Heath Jr.
Is our current celebrity-obsessed culture any different from other similarly mad periods in American history? Not as much as one would expect. The 1920s had Film Daily, Clara Bow and the star system. We have Deadline Hollywood, Paris Hilton and reality television. Elaborate fabrication of star personas has always been key in show business, even if the modes of communication and technologies have given the process a facelift. The spirit of vapidity exists no matter the era.
But Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring suggests one tangible shift in the way pop-culture icons function as warped representations of society. Nowadays, the stars themselves are no longer necessary to jumpstart fantasies; all that matters is their glitzy stuff.
Based on Nancy Jo Sales’ Vanity Fair article “The Suspect Wore Louboutins,” The Bling Ring dramatizes the actual events surrounding a string of Beverly Hills home invasions in 2008 and 2009. The crimes were perpetrated by a group of high-school students targeting public figures like Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom. Coppola’s film functions as an interesting twist on satire, painting these young people as excited empty vessels yearning to share the same space with their celebrity’s possessions. To touch Rachel Bilson’s necklace or lay in her bed is equivalent to coming-of-age in the land where Facebook is king. Documentation equals power and status.
Instead of dimensional characters, Coppola gives us posing faces. There’s ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang), a conniving force of nature who convinces fellow students Marc (Israel Broussard) and Nicki (Emma Watson) to Google celebrity addresses then partake in nighttime raids when the famous homeowner is away. Together, they form a collective that slowly grows to include multiple other glam-hungry participants. Proof of their shady dealings populates the web, becoming a sort of clueless and defiant open record for how seamlessly the group crosses the border from public domain to private space. Their crimes are improvisational, swift invasions devoid of planning or structure with only a single goal: to witness and possess what is usually off limits.
Inquisitiveness met with limitation has long been a defining dynamic for the young characters in Coppola’s films, whether it’s the Lisbon sisters’ jaunt to the prom in The Virgin Suicides, Charlotte’s melancholic Tokyo story in Lost in Translation or the clueless sense of self-discovery in the midst of national revolution by the titular Marie Antoinette.
The Bling Ring is different in that Coppola affords her characters the whimsical freedom to do whatever they want, wherever they want. Some of the nighttime sequences even contain images of a celebration so gleeful that one might think he or she were watching a John Hughes comedy produced by The E! Network.
In this sense, The Bling Ring examines the ease with which privacy, both in a physical or virtual sense, can be erased on a moment’s notice. Coppola doesn’t see this as a disturbing or ghostly trend like Sean Durkin did with Martha Marcy May Marlene, but, rather, something organic to our contorted way of living in today’s frenzied world. One brilliantly conceived slow zoom atop the Hollywood hills looking down at a multi-floored house being robbed by Rebecca and Marc is an astonishing example of how Coppola expresses this almost effortless encroachment in such poetic terms.
The film’s fatal flaw is that there aren’t enough of these sobering visual moments to convey a defined social critique of celebrity obsession that feels more than skin deep. Instead, Coppola’s mosaic of characters grows more obnoxious and simplistic as they feign reform, the most heinous example being Watson’s club-hopping, coke-snorting brat.
While The Bling Ring does incite a necessary dialogue about the devastating allure of shiny possessions as a form of modern achievement, it’s ultimately a benign snapshot of vapid things behaving badly. There has to be more to them, right?