American cinema seems preoccupied with the emptiness of excess, at least in the first half of 2013. Baz Luhrmann luxuriates in the meaningless wealth of "The Great Gatsby," while Harmony Korine put his own twisted spin on the dark soul of the American dream in "Spring Breakers." And now comes Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring," another look at the at-any-cost pursuit of celebrity and the worship of brand names, but it doesn't bring anything new to a conversation that seems to have run out of things to say.
While the film makes pains to remind the viewer that it's "Based on true events," Coppola is less concerned with accurately capturing the ins and outs of the real-life gang than in simply recreating their criminal behavior. But unfortunately, the criminals themselves are little more than one-dimensional sketches. Katie Chang and Israel Broussard form the heart of the film as Rebecca and Mark, a duo of besties who bond at Indian Hills, a school known for taking on last chance kids who haven't adapted elsewhere. And before long, Rebecca shows Mark her game of "check cars," which is essentially walking down the street, seeing what cars left their doors open, and taking whatever is inside. It isn't long until this game extends to breaking into houses.
Coppola seems to be mostly fascinated with the break-ins themselves. The first half of "The Bling Ring" is a nearly endless string of scenes detailing what eventually seems to be every crime the Bling Ring committed, to the point of tedium. From looking up which celebrities are out of town on Dlisted, to finding their address (almost unbelievably easily) on the internet, to casually walking in and helping themselves to whatever they wanted, perhaps the point here is that the quest to be famous -- or even adjacent to fame -- is an insatiable appetite that will forever leave you unfulfilled. But, is this really something we never knew before? And how many scenes of closets being raided do you really need?
From knowing their Louboutins from Miu Miu, and partying with little regard to any consequences, Rebecca, Mark and the gang that assembles around them have your standard sob stories. Rebbecca's parents are divorced, Mark suffers from anxiety and self-loathing ("I never saw myself as an A-list looking guy," he later recalls), while Nicki (Emma Watson, having fun playing vapid in a supporting role that later strains to be a lead) is home-schooled by her "The Secret" obsessed mother (Leslie Mann), who hands out Adderall like vitamins. (There's also Chloe, played by an underutilized Clarie Julien, whose brief moments suggest an edge that "The Bling Ring" could have sorely benefited from.)
But it's the picture's lack of focus that eventually diminishes whatever little "The Bling Ring" has to say. For the most part, the story is told through the eyes of Rebecca and Mark -- the latter proclaiming at one point that he loves Rebecca like a sister -- but as we move into the second half of the movie, it's Nicki who begins to take center stage. The shift is a bit out of left-field and leaves the relationship of Rebecca and Mark to conclude with little more than updated Facebook status (really). And we've spent so little time with Nicki in the first half of the movie that her admittedly hilarious interviews with the press don't provide much additional context other than again emphasizing the film's rather meager thematic goals.
While the ambitions of the movie might be quite low (and this may be Coppola's flimsiest movie to date), the filmmaker, who has always had a great visual eye, does find moments of beauty. A break-in sequence at Audrina Patridge's house places the camera in the hills with the entire glass home in view, as we watch Rebecca and Mark move through each room and floor of the house, from a distance. It's a haunting shot, and a scene that, even more than the rest of the robbery set-pieces, really captures the violation of privacy the Bling Ring brought upon their victims (whereas in the rest of the movie, their burglary is almost celebratory). And Coppola also has great fun in cutting an arrest montage, a sequence that brings a dose of reality to the rest of the movie which largely feels like a teenage fantasy.
The subject of celebrity is nothing new to Coppola who explored both its loneliness and luxuriance in "Somewhere" and "Marie Antoinette," and here those same preoccupations ricochet to less satisfying results. Coppola wants to chastise a tabloid culture where almost anybody can become an instant celebrity, regardless of their accomplishments (or misdeeds), but it's an easy target and when spun through a group of barely sketched characters, whose motivations are even thinner, it makes "The Bling Ring" a weightless experience, no matter how many hot tunes (the soundtrack is extensive and playlist ready) and gaudy baubles fill the screen. [C]