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6/20/2013

Review: 'The Bling Ring', starring Emma Watson and Israel Broussard


When the book is written on the movies of 2013, it'll go down as the year when celebrating excess became cool again. We've seen it a number of times already in the first six months. Michael Bay's muscle-heads of Pain & Gain glory in their stupefying wealth; Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby celebrates the emptiness of it all; while Spring Breakers provides a much bleaker spin. And now there's Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, which has her delving yet again into the vapid world of celebrity obsession, and perhaps it's a well she's gone to once too often.

That's not to say The Bling Ring is bad, because it definitely isn't. There just doesn't seem to be any reason for it to exist. Right from the very beginning of her, Coppola has been fascinated by characters that have had every advantage, and the isolation brought on by their excessive fame and wealth.  But she doesn't really seem to be interested in doing that here, preferring to simply show us the crimes committed by the real life Beverly Hills brats known as the "Bling Ring", or as some gossip sites christened them, the "Burglar Bunch".

Many will flock to the film simply for the chance to see Emma Watson hit the stripper pole as the shallow and devious Nicki, but she's mostly a background character who gets her moment to shine only in the final act. It's Israel Broussard and Katie Chang as best friends Marc and Rebecca who are the story's driving force. He's the new kid in town, in need of a confidence boost and a fresh wardrobe to keep up with his upscale peers. Fortunately he bonds pretty quickly with Rebecca, a fame whore with a "take everything" attitude who introduces him to what is initially a life of petty crime. On one of their first outings she engages in "car checking", literally walking up and down the street looking for unlocked cars to rob. And there are plenty, proving that wealth isn't a substitute for brains or security.

From there it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to breaking into celebrity homes, and Coppola seems to be fascinated by the fine details of their crimes, choosing those moments to show off her keen visual sense. The film opens with a video cam shot of the kids, which at this point includes Nicki, Chloe (Claire Julien), and Nicki's best friend, Sam (Taissa Farmiga). It's a powerful scene, if only for the brazenness of the act, and other such break-ins are equally unnerving. Perhaps the most haunting of all involves a later break-in at the home of Audrina Partridge, captured in complete silence and shot from a distance, allowing us to see the intruders as they boldly stalk the home's halls.

As powerful as those moments are, watching the junior thieves plot their robberies is only interesting initially, but quickly grows repetitive. We see the fashion-conscious youths hitting the Internet where in short order they can find out where their favorite celebs are hanging out, then just as easily find their addresses and a satellite layout of their homes. Thanks, Google Earth! Bet they didn't put THAT in The Internship! Coppola is especially interested in the corrupting nature of fame, and these kids all see themselves as A-listers, hanging out at the same clubs as Paris Hilton and Kirsten Dunst, taking "selfies" and splashing the images all over Facebook.

Coppola's purely observational approach has served her well in the past, but we learn so little about what has turned these kids into little monsters that it's tough to find them interesting. Parents are basically a non-entity, except for Nicki's mom (Leslie Mann), who serves her kids Adderall at breakfast and relies on The Secret for parenting advice. There's just not a lot to be found that is truly compelling or insightful, although it's great fun to watch Watson playing such a vile, empty character, whose knowledge is limited to which celeb is wearing the latest Louboutins. In jarring fashion Nicki steps into the spotlight as the long arm of the law finally catches up to them, but it comes at the sacrifice of Marc and Rebecca, whose complicated friendship had been the most developed.

Unlike Coppola's other films, The Bling Ring is one that needs her to take a stance and not be a passive observer. Tell us these kids are reprehensible. Tell us they're just a product of a screwed up tabloid culture that values effortless fame over earned success. Just tell us something. While the soundtrack is hot, and it's devilish fun to watch bad kids doing really bad things, The Bling Ring is ultimately costume jewelry when it could have been Damiani.