They’re young, they’re stupid and self-absorbed, and they steal things from famous people. That’s pretty much the gist of “The Bling Ring,” the latest in Sophia Coppola’s series of films (“Lost in Translation,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Somewhere”) about the vacuity of the life of the privileged and the banality of celebrity-centered culture. Presumably there’s meant to be a shrewdly satirical swipe in these films, but it worked only in “Translation,” largely because of Bill Murray’s hangdog persona; and though “Ring” represents a mild rally after the unmitigated disaster of “Somewhere,” despite a glitzy surface it ultimately seems as devoid of substance as its airheaded young characters.
Coppola’s script is based on Nancy Jo Sales’ Vanity Fair article about a bunch of well-off teens from an “alternative” high school in Calabasas, California, who break into the houses of the “rich and famous” and arbitrarily purloin a few things to keep or sell. (The story was previously dramatized in a 2011 Lifetime Network movie, though without the visual flair and cool attitude of this telling.) The motivation is about as deep as that for anything else they do—which pretty much amounts to wasting their time in school, following the doings of their celebrity idols, clubbing, taking drugs, driving recklessly and pulling the wool over the eyes of their dumb-as-nails parents. And of course when they’re caught it brings them a measure of fame themselves, though also a modest amount of jail time.
The only one of the bunch one can have any sympathy for is Mark (Israel Broussard), the new arrival at the Indian Hills School who’s desperately in need of some emotional support before being befriended by pretty but domineering Rebecca (Katie Chang). She introduces the guy to the carefree habit of joyriding in unlocked cars and appropriating whatever they find inside them. When he notices while surfing the net that Paris Hilton, one of their major sources of celebrity fascination, is going to be out of town for the night, she persuades him to take a little excursion into her grossly ostentatious house, filled with self-promoting bric-a-brac, and leaving with a few items to serve as proof of their expedition. That begins a series of home invasions—all of them, at least in this telling, absurdly easy since there appears to be no serious security in any of the pads—which grow in size as pals Nicki (Emma Watson), Sam (Taissa Farmiga), Chloe (Claire Julian) and Rob (Carlos Miranda) join in the fun. Hilton’s mansion is targeted again, but so are the homes of Brian Austin Green, Megan Fox, Audrina Patridge, Orlando Bloom, Miranda Kerr, Rachel Bilson and ultimately Lindsay Logan, with whose escapades Rebecca is obsessed.
Ultimately, however, their pastime comes to an unpleasant end when they’re all identified via security footage and hauled into court. Easily convicted on the basis of loot they’ve kept as precious souvenirs or fenced, they’re sentenced to jail terms of one to four years, depending on how many break-ins they participated in. But some exult in the ensuing notoriety, with the obtuse Nicki shown giving self-serving interviews—including one with a Vanity Fair reporter identified as “Kate”—in which she portrays the ordeal as a wonderful learning experience that will help her in her quest to do something to benefit the world (and is irritated whenever her mother tries to butt in on “her” camera time).
That’s certainly indicative of Coppola’s desire to play with the irony of second-hand celebrity (at another point a character gushes over having spent time in the same cellblock as Lohan), but the satiric edge is blunt, not only in those scenes but early ones showing Nicki and Sam having to endure the idiocies of their mother Laurie (Leslie Mann), a spacey New Age type who engages in goofy feel-good prayer sessions and self-improvement rituals with the girls. There’s certainly grist for sharp social commentary here, but the writer-director is unable to pull it off, especially since her approach also seems to invite smug complicity from the audience, so that viewers can both watch the antics of these obtuse characters with an attitude of condescension while simultaneously smiling at the fact that the targets deserve having their privacy invaded by these numbskulls. After all, didn’t a talentless, ersatz celebrity like Hilton, who thrives on empty coverage of her life—and is even so lacking in self-awareness that she allowed Coppola to shoot in her grotesquely glitzy home—get exactly what she had coming?
The fact that the characters are all treated as caricatures keeps one at emotional remove throughout, except for the moments when one can feel some empathy for Broussard’s Mark, an obviously needy guy whose obsession with female fashion (to the extent that he even enjoys a degree of cross-dressing) suggests that he’s still working out his sexuality. As for the others, they mostly coast on one-note performances, though Chang’s seductive petulance and Watson’s monomaniacal self-absorption register nicely. The picture has the look of a bauble, with an appropriate emphasis on what passes for Hollywood glamour in the costumes (Stacy Battat) and production design (Anne Ross), and the sound of one too, thanks to the background use of pop songs supervised by Bran Reitzell. It’s dedicated to cinematographer Harris Savides, who died during the shoot and was ably replaced by Christopher Blauvelt; their work is seamlessly conjoined by editor Sarah Flack.
Like Coppola’s other films, “The Bling Ring” has ambitions that it never fulfills. In the end it resembles Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” also based on a real case, which strove for a tone of ironic observation it never achieved and ended up feeling similarly artificial and pointless.