Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review: "The Bling Ring"

Director: Sofia Coppola
Runtime: 90 minutes

The second indie feature this year about youth behaving badly, The Bling Ring stands as an interesting companion piece to Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, which opened in March. The latter film was a look at the wild excesses of college spring break. As much as the montages and ambient score drew one into Korine's vision, that film ultimately ended with a lesson, albeit a pat one, about the dangers of unchecked nihilism. Sofia Coppola's film, by contrast, is more concerned with light social commentary and satire. Rather than invite us to revel in the fun that her subjects have, Coppola wants them to be, for the most part, unchanging, all in service of the film's statement about a celebrity-obsessed culture. 

Yet, like Korine's film, The Bling Ring is its director's most accessible film, even as it bears some of her standard stylistic choices. The late Harris Savides' cinematography is crisp, but never flashy, capturing everything in washed out tones. The characters may luxuriate in the items that they steal from celebrities, but Coppola's camera is more interested in sitting back and capturing their exploits. It's very much in line with Coppola's previous films, but it's also a choice that explains the film's split reception. All throughout her career, Coppola has been charged with simply coasting on her father's name (while Jason Reitman, tellingly, avoids the same criticism), and telling nothing more than wafer-thin stories of the privileged. Most of the characters in The Bling Ring are quite well off and, more importantly, unbearably entitled. 

The difference, and it's a big one, is that these aren't characters we're meant to sympathize with. This is most evident whenever Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) are on screen. Nicki, in particular, is a walking target for satire, and she gets all of the best lines that illustrate the titular group's vapidity. Watson, whose performance is easily the most affected, is clearly the film's standout, by virtue of playing the closest to caricature. As things take a turn for the worse, and the law closes in on the bling ring, Watson dominates the film as she seeks to cover her ass at every turn, spouting off lines about karma and spirituality. 

Unfortunately, the characters closer to the forefront of the story aren't quite as fun to watch through their shenanigans, as well as the fallout. Just like the Lifetime movie (of the same title), Coppola's film centers around Marc (Israel Broussard), a shy high schooler who befriends Rebecca (Katie Chang), a rich and popular girl who casually introduces him to the world of theft. First they start by taking a few things about of a clothing store. Before long, they're taking money out of unlocked cars. It doesn't take long for everything to build to a quick trip into Paris Hilton's house (and her expansive closet).

But as Rebecca coaxes Marc into the world of thievery, The Bling Ring fails to fully captivate its audience. Despite the satiric bite of the second half, Coppola's build up feels too reserved and distant. Their backgrounds are too hazily sketched out for their adventures to be anything more than exercises in wanton entitlement. By contrast, early scenes with Watson and Farmiga, along with Leslie Mann as their "The Secret" obsessed mother, perfectly capture their outlook on life. Rebecca may be the leader, and Marc the hesitant voice of reason, but one wishes they were off to the side, and Nicki and Sam placed front and center. Aside from Watson's hilarious valley-girl emptiness, Farmiga makes the biggest impact with a simple scene filled with a shocking level of tension. The sisters may not shoot up any gangsters like the girls in Spring Breakers, but in Sam there are flashes of a more aggressive form of recklessness. It's an inspired touch, but it's ultimately too small in the grand scheme of the film. 

Even Coppola's conclusion proves too simple, despite the well-earned laughs. By the second half, the film seems to grasp that Nicki deserves to be the star of the story, as she feels more complete in her entitlement. Rebecca, by contrast, is just a well-off girl who simply wants to steal. Even when Marc tells us, in voiceover, that Rebecca was the group's leader, it's kind of tough to believe. Watson's presence is simply so much stronger. Her character may be drawn in broad strokes, but she still has more to work with than anyone else. 

This shift in focus leaves The Bling Ring feeling split. The first half feels more like "classic" Coppola, with its sleepier, more casual rhythms. The second half find Coppola sharpening her focus, and actually adapting to the material, rather than trying to force it to adapt to her style. And it's in that second half that The Bling Ring gets around to what it should have started so much earlier: satirizing the level of selfish entitlement of the central characters (as well as the world's generally unhealthy obsession with fame at any cost). Yet even though the film ends with its stronger half, the end result can't help but feel like the product of two very different sides coming together to produce an all-together thin final result, albeit one that does reach some very entertaining, and even hypnotic, highs.

Grade: B-/C+

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