When future generations want to understand how we lived at the dawn of the plugged-in, privacy-free, Paris Hilton-ized 21st century, there will likely be few films more instructive than “The Bling Ring.” A spiritual sequel of sorts to “The Social Network,” Sofia Coppola’s fact-based tale of the 2008-09 crime spree by a gang of enterprising SoCal teens targeting the homes of high-profile celebrities reps a return to more pop, accessible filmmaking for the “Lost in Translation” auteur following the austere “Somewhere” (which earned only $1.7 million domestically). Though it lacks the name cast and self-consciously outre style of another recent girls-gone-wild opus, “Spring Breakers,” this lively and fascinating pic should score well with its target hipster demo, delivering solid arthouse numbers for upstart distrib A24, which plans a June release Stateside.
Given her interest in little girls lost and the vacuousness of celebrity — from the age of Enlightenment to that of Facebook — it’s easy to understand Coppola’s attraction to the story of San Fernando Valley high schoolers who, fueled by ennui and technological smarts, stole upwards of $3 million in cash, clothes and designer swag from a raft of actors, models and reality stars. But where “Lost in Translation,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Somewhere” were all studies of desiccated privilege as seen from the inside looking out, “The Bling Ring” inverts the perspective, focusing on the young barbarians at the gate, drawn to glitter and glitz like Nathanael West’s locusts to the flame.
Indeed, while some may liken the pic’s characters to the masked marauders of both “Spring Breakers” and Michael Bay’s recent “Pain & Gain,” Coppola’s markedly less violent offenders don’t seek wealth so much as notoriety — a goal that has rarely seemed more attainable than in this age of Warholian decadence, where being famous for being famous is more desirable than being famous for anything else. So “The Bling Ring” traces an intriguing feedback loop of which it is knowingly a part: a movie that affords its subjects the very immortality they so aggressively sought.
Aside from character names, Coppola sticks rather closely to the facts as reported in Nancy Jo Sales’ 2010 Vanity Fair feature “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” which came adorned with a glossy portrait photo of alleged “ring” member Alexis Neiers coyly drinking a Frappuccino, more than ready for her closeup. In that same spirit, the film smartly starts at the end of the story and works its way backward through the media prism, with various characters narrating their version of events to a Sales-like reporter. Pic remains similarly poker-faced throughout, sustaining a tone pitched somewhere between satire and grudging admiration, rarely tipping its hand in either direction.
In Coppola’s telling, Neiers becomes Nicki (Emma Watson), who, along, with younger sister Emily (Georgia Rock) and adopted sister/BFF Sam (Taissa Farmiga), is amusingly home-schooled by her mother (Leslie Mann) in lessons drawn from self-help bestseller “The Secret.” Meanwhile, across town at a remedial high school, shy new kid Mark (Israel Broussard) makes fast friends with Rebecca (Katie Chang), an Asian-American fashionista who shares his taste in life’s finer, trendier things. After graduation, she tells him, she hopes to attend Los Angeles’ Fashion Institute of Design, “where all the ‘Hills’ girls went.” He replies that, someday, he’d like to have his own “lifestyle brand.” Always adept at directing young performers, Coppola encourages fine work here from her cast of mostly newcomers, with Watson taking special relish in shedding her goody-two-shoes “Harry Potter” persona. Broussard also makes a strong impression as the wallflower with a yen for fuchsia stilettos.
The crime spree begins in earnest, when Mark and Rebecca rob the home of a vacationing classmate. But soon, with Nicki, Sam and occasional other accomplices along for the ride, they set their sights on bigger fish. First up: the estimable Ms. Hilton, whose various social-media accounts allow the burglars to track her like a tropical storm. When they know she’ll be away for a long evening, they strike her palatial Hollywood Hills pad, satellite photos from Google Earth indicating the best angle of approach. (The front-door key? Under the mat, of course.) In an especially delicious case of life imitating art imitating life, the real Hilton both cameos as herself and allowed Coppola to shoot inside her real home, the walls lined with gaudy artists’ renderings of the hotel heiress, the closets piled high with mountains of Prada and Miu Miu.
Raids on other similarly bejeweled palaces (including those of Orlando Bloom and Megan Fox) follow, aided by the surfeit of personal info available to anyone with an Internet connection. As in life, most of the victims either don’t report the crimes or don’t quite realize they’ve happened in the first place — including Hilton, who only catches on after the intruders make a rather brazen return visit. At no point do these haute-couture Robin Hoods take particular pains to conceal their identities, raising the notion that, on some level, they actually hope to be caught. Which leads to the biggest dilemma of them all: What to wear in court?
Working with her longtime collaborators — the late cinematographer Harris Savides (who became ill during production and was replaced by the equally gifted Christopher Blauvelt) and editor Sarah Flack — Coppola brings a distinct visual signature to each break-in, one a flurry of rapidly edited, closeup surveillance video, another (when the gang descends on reality star Audrina Patridge’s abode) a simple, elegant wide shot seen from a distant remove. The diverse but hip-hop-centric soundtrack, including cuts by Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Big K.R.I.T., rivals that of “The Great Gatsby” as Cannes’ liveliest.