Is there anything more sickening than Paris Hilton's closet? Bursting with wealth, excess and stupidity — and sunglasses, shoes and jewels — it's like some laughable monument to bad taste doubling as a meeting house for the seven deadly sins. To contemplate the vacuity of such a person is daunting and depressing. But imagine something even worse, the spiritual desolation of the people who actually might envy Hilton.
Such people are the subject of The Bling Ring, director Sofia Coppola's latest, about teenagers in Hollywood who envy young celebrities so much that they break into their houses and steal from them. The film loosely fictionalizes events that took place in 2008 and 2009, involving a real band of teenage thieves. Their names have been changed, but their real-life victims are the same — Hilton, Audrina Patridge, Rachel Bilson, Lindsay Lohan. Amazingly, Hilton allowed Coppola to film inside her house and appears in an cameo.
In terms of morals and character, the people in The Bling Ring are practically single-celled organisms, and this is a challenge for Coppola. How does one convey the vapidness of these individuals while maintaining an audience's interest? Coppola is too much of an artist to do it the easy way, by giving the story excessive importance or by getting on a high horse and decrying the corruption of our culture. That second element is present in the movie, but subtly: If you feel outraged and a little sick watching the people in The Bling Ring, it's because Coppola wants you to feel that way. You're not reacting against the movie, but with it.
But to make her points, Coppola concentrates instead on style, on the shiny surfaces, on the nature of the young people's interactions and the rituals of their behavior. A stealing spree is followed by a visit to an expensive nightclub and lots of photos immediately posted to Facebook and Twitter. This is a way of thinking and living that middle-age and older people don't quite understand, in which every experience is immediately commodified as a vehicle for meaningless self- promotion. It's like they're all watching themselves from the outside in, so what could they possibly want but to be famous, if only to expand the circle of watchers?
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Like lots of horrible things since the dawn of time, it all starts with a boy wanting to impress a girl. Marc (Israel Broussard) is down on his own looks and transferring into a new high school, where the exciting and beautiful Rebecca (Katie Chang) takes an unaccountable interest in him. She likes stealing for fun and profit and takes him on her adventures. First they steal from upper-middle-class people who they know are on vacation, but they soon up their game by stealing from rich celebrities, whose whereabouts they can track online. Later, the circle expands to others, including a young reality TV star, played by Emma Watson, in a perfect depiction of a hypocrite so complete and irredeemable that she can even fool herself.
They call stealing "going shopping," and like their real-life prototypes, they're so dumb they keep going back to the same places to rob them again. Unlike conventional burglars, they rob people they admire and would like to be. It's hard to know what's worse, their dishonesty or their colossal lack of sense in choosing heroes. Yet somehow both failings seem related.
Coppola's disapproval of these people is profound, but she has no interest in registering it, which is something anyone in the audience could do. Rather, she wants to immerse you in a peculiar other world, not only because of its perversity, but because she knows that, albeit in milder form, its narcissism, fear and emptiness have gone viral. The Bling Ring might sag a bit near the finish because even the liveliest anthropologist can jazz up this material only so much. But the film creates an unease that can't be denied.
These kids are suffering from a modern disease, a distinctly American disease, a distortion of the American dream. Pretend all we want that they're some foreign substance, but we know who they are.
'The Bling Ring'
R for teen drug and alcohol use, and for language including some brief sexual references. A24/NALA. 1:30. Fayette Mall.