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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 21, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 25
Glitter in their eyes - Sofia Coppola's Bling Ring is an unflattering portrait of celebrity obsession
Arts & Entertainment
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Glitter in their eyes - Sofia Coppola's Bling Ring is an unflattering portrait of celebrity obsession

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE BLING RING
Opens June 21


I'm not sure what to write about Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring. The movie is as observationally distant as many of her previous films, especially Somewhere and, to a lesser extent, Lost in Translation, looking at its vapid, materialistic, fame-obsessed central group of teenage reprobates with the same disaffected malaise they themselves project. It's aggressively nonjudgmental, the film choosing to view its protagonists with a detached superficiality that doesn't connect emotionally but still manages to pack a major, uncomforting wallop all the same.

And that's probably the point. A somewhat fictionalized recounting (based on a 2010 Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales) of how a gang of suburban Los Angeles teens managed to casually steal more than $3 million in clothing, jewelry, and cash from a group of well-known targets including Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, and Audrina Patridge, the movie looks at the growing prevalence of Internet-based youth culture and its infatuation with celebrity in a way that feels disturbingly authentic. Coppola doesn't mince words, doesn't take sides, and doesn't try to prove a point, allowing the shallowness of the act and the vainglorious myopia fueling it to speak for itself.

MIXED EMOTIONS
Thing is, I'm not sure that makes the movie entertaining. For that matter, I'm not certain it's even good. I did not like spending time with these kids. I didn't enjoy being a part of their world. What they were doing, their outlook, how easily they allowed themselves to be manipulated, the complete lack of a moral compass, all of it ate at me in a way I can't entirely put a finger on. It was ugly and distasteful, and what it ends up saying about the human condition is a theorem that part of me would rather not be forced to contemplate.

On the other hand, Coppola does just that and more with such ease, with such subtle exactitude, with such principled precision, the overall effect might just border on genius. Nothing feels out of place, no single scene out of whack or without context. The voyeuristic carnality of it all - our innate need to watch, to see, to experience our own base desires and wants through the success, failure, and excesses of others - all of that is tapped into and fed. More, much like Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain, and to an additional extent last year's Killing Them Softly, Coppola has given the American Dream a serious wakeup call, showcasing the dark underbelly of modern me-first society in a way that taps directly into the current ephemerally small-minded zeitgeist that's sadly too often all the rage.

POLISHED PRODUCTION
It should be pointed out that the movie looks amazing. In what sadly is his final film, cinematographer Harris Savides (Zodiac), working with Christopher Blauvelt (Meek's Cutoff), paints things with a piercingly clinical lens, the digital sheen of wasted youth gorgeously magnified within each and every frame. The picture is also vividly edited by Sarah Flack (Away We Go), the diametrically polarized pieces fitting together in a way that manages to keep the central tangents center stage while allowing the background commentary to come through with upsetting clarity.

The cast, by and large, comprises newcomers. Katie Chang and Israel Broussard slip into the insubstantial shells of the instigating ringleaders with sinister transparency. It's easy to understand how the former could so easily stage-manage the latter, his lack of confidence coupled with her self-centered views on privilege and wealth melding to craft the almost perfect teen-burgling field general. They're terrific, tapping into Coppola's views on this event with canny understanding, Chang and Broussard breaking through in a way that couldn't help but catch me a bit off-guard.

WATSON, MANN SHINE
Of the established faces, the two most notable - and noteworthy - are Harry Potter alum Emma Watson and Judd Apatow regular Leslie Mann. Each make the most of what they're given to do, Watson in particular, her casual, cursorily haughty cadence fitting her character (based on real-life 'Bling Ring' participant and 'Pretty Wild' reality star Alexis Neiers) to perfection. Each actress manages to ground things in a tactile honesty that makes the events cascading toward tragedy around them resonate on a deeply unsettling level, both parent and child living in a world detached from normalcy, yet one that at the same time felt all too commonplace.

I can't admit to liking what The Bling Ring has to say about modern youth culture. I also can't say I felt my time sitting in the theater watching Coppola weave her ignominious web was something I enjoyed. But when I step back, when I choose to look at the picture on a grander scale, part of me can't fathom the thought of having been anywhere else. And an even larger part of me can't wait to sit through it all - every despicable, skin-crawling, self-loathing moment - again.

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