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Review by Joshua Gibbs
The Bling Ring is not an ambitious movie. The show might be aptly criticized for not being ambitious enough, but then I think moviemaking as a whole might collapse under the weight of such a demand. In truth, there are less than a dozen ambitious filmmakers alive. You say there are more. I say there is a vast gulf between ambition and pretense.
During more than one scene is The Bling Ring, I was reminded of a brief, but beautiful time in my life when I was buying cheap used books and reselling those books to Hastings at a massive profit. A hardback book purchased at Goodwill for a dollar could be traded to Hastings for seven dollars in store credit. I became quite good at this and, over a period of two years, spent around eight hundred dollars on used books (and free books, when I could find them) and traded them for around eight thousand dollars in credit at Hastings. Somewhere around a thousand CDS, hundreds of movies, an iPod, books and so forth. During this time, I came to understand that money had no fixed value. Money is worth less than knowledge. If I knew where to get a hundred books for six dollars, I could trade those books for two hundred dollars in credit at Hastings. The whole transaction took four hours.
The Bling Ring contains a number of scenes where very young persons are disabused of the notion that money has absolute value, and the audience is brought along on the adventure; Marc sells half a million dollars of Rolex watches for five grand, and we're left wondering what he'd rather have that costs so little? Who steals a used Maybach and sells it for nothing just to buy a new Honda? Somebody who likes shopping better than owning fine things. While the theives have a taste for expensive things (or buying new things, rather), they're never shown to have good taste. The thematic and visual similarities between The Bling Ring and Marie Antoinette are purely coincidental; while both films center on klepto rich kids, Marie Antoinette was a my-favorite-things film wherein the director pieced together a perfect mixtape for the soundtrack, gathered the coolest people she knew (Steve Coogan, Danny Huston, Tom Hardy and Marianne Faithfull in the same movie? What? No Cary Grant? Was Beau Brummell shooting something else?) and then set up shop in the most tony house in the galaxy. The kids in The Bling Ring wear Juicy sweats and buy vodka you've heard of before. They listen to fake gangster rap and I doubt any of them could name a single New Order record. Plebes.
At the same time, it seems hard to believe that Sofia Coppola is capable of condemning anyone; while she has a number of laughs at the expense of her characters, everything the Bling kids do seems perfectly logical to them, or at least (or especially) to Rebecca, the Ring leader. Coppola never explains why they believe their actions are logical, but neither does she show them as puppets helplessly doing the bidding of the writer, but neither does she sympathize with them. Coppola seems to know these people deeply and yet not know them at all, but this is what is required in presenting characters who act according to their deepest prejudices when those prejudices are not shared by the presenter. As a teacher, I regularly present authors as logical and reasonable, even while I don't ultimately agree with much they say, and in this way, I have a deep affinity for the way Coppola relates to her characters, idiots though they be. Coppola's cosmos does a fine job reflecting the texture and logic of our own. Several years ago, Remi Brague wrote an analysis of the creation week in defense of man's autonomy from God:
When the Bible describes God as withdrawing from His work in order to enjoy rest, God is described as free. But the world is, so to speak, free from God’s action, too, and is allowed to rest. God does not interfere any more with what He has created. On the contrary, He somehow sets His creatures on a free footing. His providence gives them whatever is required for them to be able to “shift for themselves” in the pursuit of what is good for them. The necessary outfit that enables a creature to reach its own good is what we call its nature. The biblical God does not create bundles of independent properties that He arbitrarily puts together or asunder; He creates things that are endowed with natures of their own. To be sure, God keeps whatever exists in being, for without His continuous will to maintain them, they would disappear. But He respects the nature of the things He has created.
Coppola respects the free footing of her characters, as well. She employs a judgmental tone at the most unsuspecting of moments, and after letting her characters get away with murder for ages. Were she not such a meticulous keeper of details, I might suspect her a Deist.
Coppola got her start in Hollywood quite young. She had a small part in The Godfather III, and likely kept company with her father and his work from grade school. Forever after, she revisits stories about how strange it is when the psychic weight of old age is foisted upon girls too early. In The Virgin Suicides, the Lisbon girls keep adult-depression and ennui before they can drive. In Lost in Translation, Charlotte cannot confide in her young husband, but finds a kindred soul (and a Platonic romance) in a man more than twice her age. The historical Marie Antoinette seems an obvious soulmate for Coppola- the Archduchess of Austria became Queen of France while yet a teenager. Cleo of Somewhere is another young girl best accompanied by a seen-it-all burnout, a description equally fitting Johnny Marco (the stupid Stephen Dorff) or Bob Harris (the actual Bill Murray). The detachment Coppola feels towards her characters, even while understanding them, seems naturally born out of any child/adult relationship; children are both perfectly suckered by adults, and yet lack the manners and pretense to not vocalize everything they notice. Children will do anything you ask them to do for candy, but if you fart, they'll talk about it for for weeks.
This one is a touch different than Coppola's previous movies, though. The kids want to be like adults, as is the theme of Coppola's ouevre, but the adults they want to be like are nothing more than over privileged kids. For the first time, Coppola has made a film wherein the characters are not pursuing (or burdened by) the mystique of The Adult. The audience is in on this joke, too, though, as the first thing we really see when the Bling kids break into an Adult house is an adult face (Paris Hilton's, to be exact) comically, narcissistically plastered on every flat surface. And it's Hilton's house, of course.
A number of reviewers have been interested in why the Ringers feel no twinge of guilt at stealing the delicious things of their heroes, and I'm no less interested in this question, which sits handsomely in the middle of every burglary. I suspect the Ringers appreciate how little their idols have done to deserve their wealth, and thus feel little remorse at removing a little of their ill-gotten gain. Within the broader scope of American history, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan are quite lucky to have been born where and when they were. A hundred years ago, both would have starved to death. They owe their millions to being in the right place at the right time, which is basically true of the Bling kids.
Which brings up another rather fascinating aspect not so much of the movie, but of the Real Events promised in the film's trailer. How the hell did all of this happen in 2011?
I remember watching Hackers back in the late 90s and giggling with delight to see a couple cyberpunks use a handheld tape recorder and five dollars in quarters to get free long distance on a payphone. When I was a child, I was wowed when Matthew Broderick used a computer to change his report card in War Games. In the 80s and 90s, technological loopholes felt like magic. The effect was somewhat diminished in the early 2000s when you spent three hours downloading an FM radio rip of Lifehouse's "Hanging By A Moment" for free off Napster. Today, technological loopholes are for the folks at Anonymous who take down the FBI website every few months for some reason or another. I suspect the day is quickly coming when we will watch old episodes of The Fugitive and sigh for a day when "you could actually disappear for weeks and no one could find you." That said, last year a bunch of California kids from a school for dropouts started walking into the homes of millionaires and carting off Berkin bags full of their mammon. They did this for ten months. What year is it, again? Does the principle behind beginner's luck apply to... life? It certainly seems like it does when Rebecca suggests they break into Paris Hilton's house (given that Paris is out of town) and that "she probably keeps her keys under her rug." A brief car ride later, rug up, keys out, door open, Hermes gone. The Bling Ring is a light, effortless movie easily born out of the unnervingly simple plan of its heroines.
The show makes slightly better use of Los Angeles than did Somewhere, although Michael Mann's Collateral still takes the palm in that event. Several times, Coppola uses the massive view of LA from the hills as a backlight, and once, the kids scuttle as shadows across the vista like Elliot and ET in Amblin's iconic logo. Boilerplate club scenes abound, and numerous, needless full screen shots of Facebook pages and red carpet glam shots will likely make the movie seem dated quickly. It might be countered that the film is full of things so fleeting as the celebrities and their devotees, but stupid celebrities are nearly a cultural transcendent in the Modern era, and so the subject might be addressed in a manner which survives a few more seasons than a Forever 21 blouse. Aristophanes took hack philosophers (and those who adore them) to task 2400 years ago, and is still widely read, so it's not as though a flash-in-the-pan subject necessarily produces a flash-in-the-pan dressing down.
Coppola's fifth is an improvement over her fourth, and will certainly hold up another viewing or two, even if just as a comedy. If you saw the preview and wanted to watch the movie, it could not possibly let you down. The first act is hypnotic, the kind of thing you could watch sober during an operation and not feel a thing. The modicum of tension introduced at the start of the second act recalls that the whole thing is still a movie, though, and that some forward motion is necessary- a lesson the characters never learn.