It would be a bit unfair to Sofia Coppola to say that she’s going to spend the rest of her career as a director trying to remake the brilliantly understated and beautiful Lost in Translation: First, Lost in Translation is a great movie, and she’d be remiss not to recycle its tone and some of its themes in her later work; second, it’s her techniques with the camera and with sound that she honed in Lost in Translation that help make her new film, The Bling Ring, something worth seeing, because she applies them here. (There are thematic parallels, too, including one that made me think about Lost in Translation in a new way.) Maybe Coppola won’t reach those artistic highs of 2003 again—it’s pretty hard to get Greatest Actor Alive Bill Murray on the line, after all—but she does know how to direct a movie, even if The Bling Ring‘s moral ambiguity came across as one-sided. Despite my generalizations about her career arc and my deep appreciation for some of Coppola’s past work, I was actually surprised by how quiet The Bling Ring was; I think I expected ninety minutes of loud noises, shot entirely with a handheld camera by Harvey from TMZ. (Instead it was shot by the talented and sadly late Harris Savides, and by Christopher Blauvelt after Savides died.) The movie’s muted qualities allow Coppola to make her points about celebrity culture and expose the crassness of those who consume it, emulate it, and desire it for themselves. The film drags towards its finale and I don’t completely share Coppola’s point of view—I’d point some criticisms in more directions, and different directions, than she does—but the characters’ vapidity makes for an alluring contrast with The Bling Ring‘s lush but restrained aesthetics.
My skewed expectations for The Bling Ring probably derived from the film’s trailer:
The trailer, as you can see and hear, makes heavy use of Azealia Banks’ “212,” a song that does feature in the movie, but in a way that showcases Coppola’s gifts for utilizing the soundtrack, and diegetic music in particular, to further her commentary and elevate her movies. When “212” gets pumped through the speakers, the “Bling Ring”* (played Emma Watson, Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Tessa Farmiga, and Claire Julien) is awaiting bottle service at a chic night club populated by the likes of Paris Hilton and Kirsten Dunst (who make cameos; Coppola also filmed in Hilton’s actual home); critically, the song is playing on the club’s speakers, meaning the characters can hear it, too. When the anthem spiritually calls Nicki (Watson) and a couple friends to the dance floor, the camera lingers, still, at a distance. The effect of the combination of motionless camera and diegetic song while Nicki and her pals perform a bastardized white-person twerk a few feet away is to mock and to reveal. This band of young people is drowning in vanity, but luckily for you, they’re more than eager to get up on stage and make fools of themselves.
*I’ll note that the group never refers to themselves by this moniker; the film implies that the media bestowed this name on them after their robberies came to light.
Coppola refrains from using slow motion for the first half, and in my opinion wrongly employs it a couple times in the film’s second half, because the actors and the homes they burglarize are already extremely attractive. There is some dramatic irony in watching the clan strut down the sidewalk with frappuchinos when we already know that Audrina Patridge’s* security cameras have caught one of their faces, and I won’t blame Coppola for keeping Watson’s suggestive lip lick from the trailer in the final cut (I’m a guy), but if The Bling Ring is attempting to show us just how ridiculous these teenagers are (and it is), it should’ve stuck with the diegetic noise and stationary camerawork. The movie didn’t need to add any more style because it already had plenty; the goal should have been to strip away the glossy veneer.
*The film’s best line comes after Becca (Chang) has explained that her dream is to enroll at the same fashion school that LC attended at the beginning of The Hills; Marc’s (Broussard) response is, “And then intern at Teen Vogue?”
Importantly, Watson and crew understand the joke—understand that the audience will be laughing at them—but Nicki and crew don’t; the characters imagine everybody gushing and fawning over them. There’s a pretty straight line that runs from Paris Hilton, one of the group’s idols, to the dialect of teenage rich-white-girl-speak, and Watson nails it; she has her OHMAIGODs, HAWTs, and CA-YUTEs down pat, and she and the other female cast members know to stand with their heads cocked at a forty-five degree angle with their mouths slightly open at all times. They’re playing to stereotype, certainly, but it’s an effective satire. Even if their performances are one-note, each of them do a slightly different take on the stereotype so that the film’s joke doesn’t grow tiresome too fast (and the cast is large enough, too, which helps prevent any one character from getting too much screen time). The character ostensibly at the moral center of this craven universe is Marc (who, if he’s playing a stereotype, is playing Angsty Teenager), and Coppola repetitively had him warn during the course of each robbery that the group needed to leave. Coppola didn’t need to have Marc verbalize his paranoia so often, but having him do so showed that while Marc may have been more aware than his friends but that awareness won’t lift his eventual comeuppance.
It was when the comeuppance finally arrived, as it had to, and when Coppola started pointing the blame, that I started to have a little trouble with The Bling Ring, mostly because Coppola directed practically of her scorn at us, as viewers, and the kids (and Nicki’s mom, played creepily and hilariously by Leslie Mann as a home-schooling Christian Scientist who uses “vision boards” of Angelina Jolie cut-outs from tabloids to teach her daughters about role models). Look, these kids are worthy targets: There was enough vanity, cattiness, and self-satisfaction in the group to fill every mansion in the Hollywood Hills, and no one will argue that kids who think they can get away with a string of burglaries deserve a stern and harsh lesson. Nor should we, as consumers, be immune; we are the reason people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are famous, because we project our fantasies onto them (or happen to enjoy sex tapes), and The Bling Ring implicates us in the teenage misdeeds via handheld cameras during some of the robbery scenes. (I say this as a daily TMZ reader; you need your high- and your low-brow, OK?) But Coppola doesn’t really open the celebrities to criticism, or at least not nearly as much criticism as she reserves for her younger characters. It is only at the end, when one of the characters is revealed to have shared a cell next to Lindsay Lohan, that Coppola seems to reduce both fame-hungry teenagers and fame-whorey wastes of talent to the same level.
Coppola does invert our normal framing of the relationships that celebrities share with the riff-raff. For example, I don’t think many of us out there envision Paris Hilton as a victim, but that’s an accurate term here; a bunch of strangers broke into her home, multiple times, and Paris Hilton deserves privacy even though she spends almost all of her time seeking somebody to take her picture and just notice her. Moreover, people like Paris and Kim actually have earned the homes they live in; they might be silly and dumb, but they had good enough sense to capitalize on the substantial demand for them just to appear in public. It’s us who are the suckers in the end—or maybe not, as I’ll confess to very much enjoying People‘s StarTracks every week, and I’d have trouble calling a genuinely entertained person a sucker.
To circle back to Lost in Translation, Coppola made a similar case in that movie, which was about making a connection with a famous person that went beyond autograph seeking. What makes Lost in Translation a better and more profound film is Bill Murray’s melancholy and weariness. (I realized that Murray’s character there is not necessarily a “good” actor—judging from the dialogue, his Bob Harris starred in a lot of action movies—but there’s no way Paris Hilton is as circumspect about her career as Bob is.) Instead of aiming a little tongue-lashing the celebrities’ way, though, The Bling Ring either plays it safe (disclosing that Paris Hilton has a zillion pictures of Paris Hilton adorning her walls is the easiest and tamest Paris Hilton joke Coppola could make) or works more to show off their homes and lifestyles rather than mock them.
I’m cool with that as far as I let on above (I’ve got no problem with Paris Hilton recognizing the market for club appearance fees), but while the Bling Ring eventually gets paraded before the mug-shot camera—the finale feels like a less lively GoodFellas ending—Paris’ own DUI goes wholly unmentioned. (In fairness, Lindsay’s arrests do.) Nobody’s a saint: certainly not Nicki and Marc and certainly not the public, but not Paris Hilton either, and The Bling Ring could have benefited from a few more jokes at the expense of people like her, many of whom are as childlike and naive as the teenage robbers, in that they might not always realize that people are laughing at them. If the Bling Ring is vacuously beautiful, so too are some of our favorite People cover-gracers; The Bling Ring is not vacuous and certainly beautiful, but the way the movie filled the moral vacuum didn’t always ring true.