Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Bling Ring (2013) is a surprisingly funny, biting movie

Title: The Bling Ring
Director: Sofia Coppola
Language: English
Rating: R (mostly for language)

I was pleasantly surprised by The Bling Ring, which was funnier and sharper than I expected. It's a crime movie for the age of celebrity obsession and passive consumerism.

The characters are teenaged criminals and striking in how aggressively passive they are. They commit their crimes with minimal thought, but also with an obsessive repetitiveness. In the moments when they try to sound forceful and in command of themselves, they use passive phrases and clich├ęs to describe their own actions (their crimes are "circumstances that happened"). They'll latch onto an opportunity and exploit it, but only if it drifts within easy reach; they'll adapt to the moment, calling on ready-made personae (as thieves, groupies, stars, wounded children, whatever).

Here's one of the teens, Nikki (Emma Watson), defending herself at the start of the movie:

I'm a firm believer in karma. And I think this situation was attracted into my life as a huge learning lesson for me. To grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country one day, for all I know.

So what have these teenaged criminals done? (And keep in mind, this is based on a real-life crime spree…)

Throughout the movie, they repeatedly break into celebrity homes (such as Paris Hilton's and Lindsay Lohan's) and steal whatever catches their eye. They look up when a celebrity will be out of town and then commit the break-in; this is surprisingly easy to do, as some celebrities keep a key under the doormat (for real) or leave a back window unlocked.

Aside from trying to hide their face from time to time with hoodies, the teens don't seem to bother much with keeping their identity secret. They don't wear gloves to conceal fingerprints. They mess around inside the homes, trying the beds, modeling the clothes, hanging out as if they live there. They take clothes, jewelry, cash, whatever they want and can carry. They post pictures on Facebook with the stolen gear. The police eventually get them, after repeated break-ins. In the mean time, they party hard, going to clubs, doing drugs, and taking more pictures of themselves for social media.

The ringleader is Rebecca (Katie Chang), a fashionista with a serene demeanor. Her right-hand man is Marc (Israel Broussard), a new kid in school who loves fashion himself and seems to not have any friends until Rebecca takes him under her wing; he looks to her with real affection, something that one senses she can't return in anything but a superficial way. Three other girls join in on the break-in fun - Nikki, Chloe (Claire Julien), and Sam (Taissa Farmiga).

The Bling Ring poster.jpg
"The Bling Ring poster" Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

None of the characters become caricatures (not even a home-schooling mom, played by Leslie Mann, who teaches her daughters a half-baked spirituality). The actors are all convincingly in-character and interact seamlessly with each other. If Emma Watson draws attention a little more, it's because she's the most famous of the bunch - which is an interesting twist for a movie like this, given how it focuses on the mystique around famous people; fame makes the ordinary things they do or possess fascinating.

Before rummaging through a celebrity home, the teens tend to wander around in a state of reverence; it's as if they're in a temple, where each object possesses a kind of otherworldly glow. If they take what they find, they can confer some of that glow on themselves. And if they pose in the stolen clothes on social media, what's so different between them and the famous people they follow? (Even their arrests and - for some of them - talk of rehabilitation recreates patterns from the lives of certain celebrities.)

They patch together an identity from what can be bought or stolen. And even though the movie portrays their life as a montage of sameness - crime, drugs, parties, over and over again - there's an energy to the filmmaking and an uneasiness that kept me on edge. The movie is uncomfortably voyeuristic.

It's easy to laugh at the stupidity or self-absorption of these teens, but they're a more extreme example of what people do all the time when they click on Yahoo articles about a messy celebrity divorce or, worse, look at hacked photos distributed illegally on the Internet.

The victims in this movie, the celebrities, are rich and have so much stuff, so it's tempting to think that they never even missed what the teens stole. (But this isn't necessarily true.) In any case, they're not supposed to be human and elicit sympathy. They're supposed to be celebrities, fawned over and trashed (in ways that degrade us and them). Celebrities get feelings and wishes projected onto them all the time; the idea of celebrity has a powerful hold, because it can get people to ignore what they find undesirable or painful in their own lives.

What's going on in the lives of these teens? They're empty. That's the darkness to this movie, underneath the ridiculous antics. There's no meaningful adult presence in their lives. They play dress-up, like children, but without the imagination of children. They're props on a screen.

The movie also has menacing moments that keep the tension going, like when the teens find a gun in one home and start playing around with it, not knowing if it's loaded or not. There's also a shot at the end of Marc, on a prison bus looking vulnerable and lost (what awaits him in prison?). In the course of the movie, he's had moments of misgiving, soon drowned out by noise, images and drugs. Maybe, of all the teens, he feels most betrayed.

However, for at least one of the other teens, there's promise of a new life. The movie ends on a funny note with a celebrity tell-all interview given by Nikki, who gets to share what it's like to be in the same cell block as Lindsay Lohan. "Yeah, I could hear her crying the first day…"