I like Sofia Coppola. I’ve seen Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides, two movies that delve into characters who might be misunderstood as shallow at first glance, but are ultimately interesting and complex. Coppola seems to understand that no one is as simple as we expect, and she compounds characterization with contemplations on things like loneliness and nostalgia. Add that to a colorful and heartfelt visual style, and you have one of the more interesting directors working today.
Such was my mindset when I decided to watch The Bling Ring, Coppola’s most recent film, based on a true story about a group of girls and a guy who steal from celebrities’ homes. Coppola raises questions about how we obsess over and define celebrity, which is a hot topic in American culture at the moment. I figured she would bring significant nuance to the subject and the seemingly flat characters, adding color in the story to the color in the cinematography.
I was wrong. I was so, so wrong. I’ve heard a lot of people dismiss Coppola’s talent, which often feels misplaced and naive—I’m all for disliking a director’s work, but to downplay her skill feels unfair to me considering her filmography—but The Bling Ring is every complaint I have heard about her visualized. It’s a mean-spirited depiction of characters who rarely have more flavor than cardboard in order to make a point that permeates essays from high schoolers and college Communications students: we idolize celebrities and celebrate criminals!!!
No plot summary can sum up this movie better than this simple statement: “America is obsessed with celebrity and criminals to the point that we have produced a generation of vapid, narcissistic morons.” I can remember approximately two of the five names of the main characters, who are not nearly well-written enough for the talented actresses and actor portraying them. Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Taissa Farmiga, and Claire Julien certainly do their jobs, but their jobs are to play these characters as mindless teenagers that want to be famous and have lots of money. There are more selfies in this movie than I’ve seen on any Facebook profile.
Further, the script sounds distinctly like someone in their forties trying to capture the voice of a brainless teenager in the modern age. Maybe people do talk like this, but what bothers me so much is the failure to go at all deeper than the surface. The Virgin Suicides is about a family of daughters that grow up in the suburbs with over-controlling parents. They do not sound unique or inherently interesting, but Coppola reveals what drives, scares, and hurts them to the point that we can try to understand why they are who they are, even if they might seem simple. Here, Coppola resolves to leave them as shallow, uninteresting people—spare Marc, who has interesting motivation for the first twenty minutes of the movie and then forgets it entirely—in order to sell her big thesis.
I’ve said what the thesis is already, and I think that if you asked five random people on the street what they think about America and celebrity culture, they’ll tell you exactly what Coppola is driving at here with as much nuance in one percent of the time. Seriously, The Bling Ring is as subtle as someone shooting a disco ball filled with glitter at you from a leopard print trebuchet. Every twenty minutes there are TMZ clips and awful voiceovers that tell us exactly what we’ve just seen. The one moment where the characters aren’t doing their best version of I’m-fifty-and-impersonating-what-I-hate-about-kids-these-days is when Marc outright says that it’s weird how people idolize him now that he’s a criminal, as opposed to a community worker. Thanks, Coppola. We almost missed your incredibly obvious point there for a half-second.
I could forgive The Bling Ring if it said something new about this topic, or had complex characters (I won’t even talk about one of the moms played by Leslie Mann, who is actually less nuanced than Amy Poehler in Mean Girls) that revealed why our culture is in its current state; I would praise it to the high heavens if it had both. But alas, with neither, I’m left with little to praise.
That little bit does redeem this movie from being entirely unwatchable. I think that the cinematography, done by Christopher Blauvelt and the late Harris Savides, is perfect, and certainly captures the excess of the world it depicts in every shot. Each frame is cluttered, except for when reality creeps in—e.g. a mugshot early on in the film. Further, Coppola uses jump cuts effectively, such as when the kids need private information about the celebrities they intend to rob, or even more cleverly in a courtroom scene. This world is about instant gratification, although that’s a subconcept that is not tackled in the least.
I feel bad for hating on this movie so much, because I wanted to find more in the characters. Unfortunately, Coppola refuses to complicate the matter, going against what I thought most remarkable in Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides. She knows how to stick to an idea, certainly, but her talents are better utilized on concepts superior to this one, which is little more than a mean-spirited, throw-away movie that could have been similarly scripted by an angry college kid that opines about the doom that has consumed today’s youth. I think that Coppola should leave the lazy cynicism for the lazy, and return to the brilliant character studies that set her apart as one of America’s most fascinating directors.