Friday, July 12, 2013

Movie Review: The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring is one of my favorite movies of the year. Set in 2009 and "based on actual events," it tells the tale of a group of SoCal teens obsessed with celebrities and their bling, who end up stealing millions from the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Audrina Patridge, Orlando Bloom, etc. The ringleader Rebecca (played by Katie Chang) is fearless and quite possibly a psychopath. The closest thing to a protagonist in movie is Marc (Israel Broussard), a social outcast whose fortunes rise after he meets Rebecca at his new school. Also part of the group are best friends Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Rebecca's friend Chloe (Claire Julien).

Although the acting is fantastic, many professional film critics were lukewarm about the movie as a whole, as exemplified by the concluding paragraph of A. O. Scott's New York Times review:
“The Bling Ring” occupies a vertiginous middle ground between banality and transcendence, and its refusal to commit to one or the other is both a mark of integrity and a source of frustration. The audience is neither inside the experience of the characters nor at a safe distance from them. We don’t know how (or if) they think, and we don’t know quite what to think of them. Are they empty, depraved or opaque? Which would be worse?
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has a similar conclusion in his review at
[...] Coppola neither makes a case for her characters nor places them inside of some kind of moral or critical framework; they simply pass through the frame, listing off name brands and staring at their phones. About an hour into the film, one starts to get the nagging feeling that Coppola's "neutrality" is a dodge; she avoids moral commitment, thereby creating a movie ambiguous enough to be interpreted in several ways, but too vague to have much meaning in any interpretation.
I disagree completely. I don't believe the movie is neutral or uncomitted at all; it is a satire aimed at not just the adolescents who browse TMZ, but also at their parents and society as well. Certainly, how I interpret the movie is a reflection of my own experiences working with families in which parents are at a loss as to how to rein in their teen's behavior. When I suggest setting some sensible limits, like no electronics after 10pm, I sometimes hear parents say things like: "That wouldn't work. He's like water, he always finds a way around things." Well, that's completely normal! The job of a teenager is to test the limits, to see what they can get away with. What's not normal is parents who cannot set limits or teach the teenager about acceptable behavior. The more the teen is like water, the more the parent needs to be like a vessel that can provide structure for the water.

In The Bling Ring, we see what happens when there is no such water container. For most of the main characters, we only get brief glimpses of their interactions with their parents, which I think was intentional, to reflect the fact that their parents are just not very involved. Katie's parents are divorced and her father lives in another state. Marc's father is often away on business. Chloe's parents are around but barely involved: there is a great shot of Chloe and her parents at breakfast, each separated from the others by the maximal distance that would allow them to still be in the same room. Sam was abandoned by her parents and adopted by Laurie, Nicki's mother. Laurie is the parent who gets the most screen time. Though she means well, she is portrayed as clueless and ineffective, a dispenser of Adderall who tries to teach her children lessons about character using a collage of Angelina Jolie photos. Instead of chastising her daughter after the teens are arrested, she tries to steal the limelight when a reporter interviews Nicki at their home.

In his review, Vishnevetsky's found the movie's use of celebrity cameos problematic:
[...] Paris Hilton and Kirsten Dunst have non-speaking cameos as themselves; more importantly, Hilton's real house is used throughout the film. The characters gawk at Hilton's real possessions and rifle through her real closets.

This points to the movie's most serious problem: the "impartial" viewpoint. Is "The Bling Ring" a movie about characters ogling at celebrities, or is it an excuse for the audience to ogle along with them? [...]
I really believe that Coppola was being subversive in her use of Paris Hilton's mansion. Sure, filming in Paris Hilton's home causes the audience to ogle, but my impression is that Coppola's goal was to show how ridiculous the place was, with its overstuffed glitz and wall-to-wall monuments to Paris herself. She returned to that location repeatedly, I believe, as a way of evoking disgust in the audience. After forming this opinion, I came across an interview that Coppola gave in which she was asked about the experience of filming at Paris Hilton's house (starting at 3:25). Here's what she had to say: "When we first got to see Paris Hilton's real house, it was like nothing I've ever seen before, and I had heard that she had a nightclub room, but then to really see it, and just all her pictures, and the pillows, with her pictures and stuff, it was very, um...exotic [shrugs]. I really appreciate how she let us into her, you know, real private world [smiles]." All that was missing was a wink.

The Bling Ring may not be a Great Movie, but it is certainly an important and alarming one. It's unfortunate that so many missed its subtly, and only 47% of film-goers on Rotten Tomatoes liked it. However, I do wonder about the reasons for audience members not liking the movie. Did it make them feel uncomfortable with themselves? If so, then perhaps Sofia Coppola has achieved her desired effect.