THE BLING RING Review: All Style and No Substance
When the phrase “Based on Actual Events” is used in connection with a film, whether that phrase (and/or the sentiment behind it) is directly stated, merely implied, or commonly acknowledged without needing to be said, that film will come under different scrutiny than films that are pure fiction. Take, for example, three Best Picture Oscar nominees from last year: Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln, Ben Affleck‘s Argo, and Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty.
The presentation of the political machinations of the time were closely scrutinized in relation to Lincoln‘s historical accuracy. With Argo, there was hand-wringing about the chase sequence at the end of the film. And in Zero Dark Thirty, the controversy was less about the torture portrayed and more about the purported success of that torture and all of the political stickiness that comes with that.
But those three films, regardless of accuracy, controversy, shortcuts taken in the interest of better filmmaking, how closely the actors resemble their real-life counterparts, or so many other things, all have one thing in common: they have compelling subject matter. Lincoln chronicles the weeks leading up to the assassination of the 16th President of the United States. Argo details the dicey exfiltration from Iran of would-be hostages in the late 1970s. Zero Dark Thirty presents the hunt for, and execution of, Osama bin Laden. And each director not only had compelling source material, they had a wealth of it, surely to the point that hard choices had to be made about what to leave in the film and what to cut out of the film.
When Sofia Coppola‘s The Bling Ring came along, I had already known that it was based on actual events that occurred a few years ago, although my knowledge was limited to the vague recollection of the occasional news clip. (I tend to pay little attention to Paris Hilton news as a general rule.) So while I was confident I wasn’t going to walk into the theater and get a Lincoln-level education, I was curious about how much more there would be to learn about the whole thing.
As it turns out … not much. In fact, unlike the films mentioned above, this movie is not only lacking the luxury of having a wealth of compelling source material, it’s lacking the necessity of a base amount of compelling source material. And instead of taking what she had and building around it a commentary on materialism or a satire about celebrity worship, Coppola instead presents little more than a very glossy reenactment.
Marc (Israel Broussard) is the new kid in his SoCal high school but it doesn’t take him long to make friends with Rebecca and Chloe (Katie Chang and Claire Julien, respectively), who then introduce him to Nicki and Sam (Emma Watson and Taissa Farmiga, respectively). Marc, whose sincerity, boyish charm, and ability to look at a pair of shoes and know that they are not Prada, but rather Miu Miu, endears him to the young ladies. The five become inseparable, spending their time together as a collective or in various (and completely non-sexual) combinations doing things that children of a certain affluence do: shop for clothes, go partying, and get stoned.
Marc is treated as their equal, but his bond is strongest with Rebecca. One night, while the two of them are hanging out, they learn via the Internet that Paris Hilton will be out of town. Rebecca suggests to Marc that they should break into her house. He goes along with the idea, and in doing so starts a series of break-ins of celebrities’ homes – celebrities like Rachel Bilson, Megan Fox, Lindsay Lohan, Audrina Patridge, and star-couple Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr. Hilton is the luckiest of them all, though, as the teens burgle her house on repeated occasions. The end result is theft of property valued, in total, at more than $3,000,000. Often times the break-ins involve only Rebecca and Marc, but there are other thefts that involve the rest of what the media would come to dub the “Bling Ring.”
The three-act structure of storytelling is simple – setup, confrontation, and resolution – and the story of The Bling Ring is perfect for this type of structure: How did the kids get together? What did they do once together? What was the aftermath? Simple. The problem with Coppola’s storytelling (she also wrote the screenplay, based on Nancy Jo Sales‘ Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins”) is found in the first two acts, rendering the compelling third act near-useless.
What we know about these kids is that they are either troubled, troublemakers, or both, but we only know this because they (a) attend what is suggested to be Last Chance High, or (b) behave criminally, or (c) both A and B. There is no sense whatsoever of how they reached this point in their lives, and that should have been presented, at least in cases of Marc and Rebecca. With no backstory at all, and with only sparse, self-exploratory narration from Marc suggesting he’s in therapy (which is actually revealed later to be an interview for Vanity Fair), the kids’ actions seem random at best, which makes them impossible to feel sorry for.
As for Act II, it is an exercise in repetition, with break-in after break-in documented, interwoven with scenes of the kids hanging out or partying. It’s like watching home movies of the criminally boring: “And here we are at Paris’ house. And this is us at Audrina’s. And here we are at Orlando’s.” And so on, and so on, and so on. I don’t know if Coppola was trying to convey that the kids’ actions had essentially become part of the monotony of the rest of their lives, but if that was the case, monotony is monotony, and once you get past the Wow Factor of seeing what kind of narcissist Paris Hilton truly is (as evidenced by the endless images of her own face adorning everything in her house from magazine covers to pillow covers), it’s still monotony, and if I don’t care about the kids, I sure won’t care about their daily life, crime or not.
The third act – when the law shows up – is compelling, but it is only about 15 minutes’ worth of movie, and ends no sooner than it starts.
Look, being a very glossy reenactment is not necessarily a bad thing. Just as I like a good lobster pot pie served on the coast of Maine, I also like a good cheesesteak served on the streets of South Philly, and The Bling Ring delivers in the latter good-but-not-necessarily-good-for-you category.
Visually, it’s shot through what I can only describe as an observational lens. It doesn’t have that home movie/found footage feel, but it never really feels as if the camera is there for the sake of the actors – it’s a hybrid of solid blocking and camerawork coupled with a “you are there” sensibility. And of course, everything glamorous looks glamorous, from the cars to the clothes to the shoes to the shades to the jewels to Hilton’s “Club Room” in her house (complete with stripper pole!). It’s not a look at how the other half lives so much as it’s a look at how the crazy relatives of the other half live. I loved the soundtrack, too. I can’t get the Sleigh Bells’ “Crown on the Ground” out of my head.
Of all the performances, Broussard’s is far and away the best. Marc is as close to a conscience as the group will get, and Broussard plays him as a kid who is never really confident that he belongs. He is the only one who expresses worry of being caught, yet he continues to act as Rebecca’s right-hand man. He’s the kid who doesn’t necessarily want to do what the cool kids do, but he doesn’t want to lose his membership in that club, either. It’s passive-aggressive social survival instinct.
In presenting the shallowness of these teens and their actions, The Bling Ring falls victim to the shallowness of storytelling and filmmaking by failing to make us care for someone, anyone. The kids are hollow, their parents are oblivious or absentee, and even the victims, while not deserving of being robbed no matter how wealthy they are, aren’t sympathetic either because we only ever see them through TMZ’s glasses, not through human eyes. The film is a lot like a fashion magazine: there are plenty of beautiful pictures, but eventually you put it down because you can’t find an article worth reading.