Review: “The Bling Ring”

Taissa Farmiga, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Katie Chang, and Claire Julien star in Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.As I watched Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” based on the true story of a quintet of teenagers who robbed the Hollywood Hills homes of the rich and famous by employing the surprisingly unsophisticated method of opening unlocked doors, I wondered whether the film was trying to be a hyperbolic cultural critique a la Harmony Korine’s recent “Spring Breakers” or an out-and-out parody of these kids’ desperation to become part of L.A.’s nouveau riche. Now that I’ve read the “Vanity Fair” article upon which the film is based, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales, I realize that the film actually attempts neither mode of storytelling. Instead, it’s a remarkably accurate account of the real case, with only a peppering of embellishment for dramatic effect. Some would argue it’s Coppola’s fault that she didn’t convince me that the majority of what I saw in the movie really happened, but the details are so unfathomable, I don’t think any filmmaker could have.

And by details, I don’t mean what happens in the narrative sense—while shocking that the celebrities who the so-called Bling Ring robbed didn’t have better home security, the break-ins are entirely believable as depicted—but rather, the way the teens talk and behave. I’ve spent all of my life in upper-middle-class Southern California bubbles, and I’ve never encountered anyone who spoke like Emma Watson’s Nicki, modeled after real-life Bling Ringer and E! reality star Alexis Neiers. At the very end of the film, Nicki reflects on her misdeeds in a television interview: “I’m a firm believer in Karma, and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I see myself being like an Angelina Jolie, but even stronger, pushing even harder for the universe and for peace and for the health of our planet.” As I watched this, I felt that the script and Watson’s characterization, complete with emphatic Valley Girl accent, had veered too far into shapeless parody. But then I read the source article, which includes that exact quotation, and watched a YouTube clip of the real Neiers, who speaks in a very similar voice.

However, even now that I realize that Coppola was going for a style more akin to realism than parody or hyperbole—in spite of the distinctly flashy, digital noise-laden aesthetic by Christopher Blauvelt and the late Harris Savides, to whom the film is dedicated—I fail to see what the writer/director is attempting to say with “The Bling Ring,” if anything. With the exception of confessionals from the quintet’s sole male member, Marc (Israel Broussard, whose magnetically disaffected performance feels like it belongs to a renegade work of another era), there is nary a scene in the film that tries to explicitly get inside the head of the characters, so they remain anthropological subjects rather than transparently human ones. But Coppola is unable to leverage their behavior into any broader social commentary, for they constitute such a tiny microcosm of America (and Los Angeles, for that matter) that to generalize through them would be inappropriate. As such, “The Bling Ring” is ultimately as superficial as its characters’ desires for fame and fortune — intoxicatingly entertaining at times, no doubt, but devoid of the thematic richness that defines Coppola’s best works, from “Somewhere” to “Lost in Translation.”