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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Valley girls go wild in Sofia Coppola's breezy 'Bling Ring'

RESERVOIR PUPPIES: The cast of The Bling Ring
  • Courtesy of American Zoetrope
  • RESERVOIR PUPPIES: The cast of 'The Bling Ring'
You can't shame an attention whore. No matter how often smart filmmakers and other artists try to lampoon the likes of Donald Trump or Paris Hilton, the mockery ultimately defeats itself, as even the harshest public ridicule only serves to increase their celebrity.

Writer/director Sofia Coppola runs up against this problem with her latest release,The Bling Ring. This sharp social comedy depicts a real clique of materialistic California teenagers whose obsession with the likes of Paris Hilton inspires them to break the law, and eventually become media figures in their own right. As a satire based on a real case, The Bling Ring tends to defeat itself, but it's depiction of Valley Girls gone bad proves highly entertaining, even for viewers who can't tell Manolo Blahniks from Louboutins (or know that they're shoes).

Changing the names of real people, The Bling Ring largely unfolds through the eyes of teenage Marc (Israel Broussard), an out-of-place new guy at a high school for rich underachievers. Marc manages to befriend cool classmate Rebecca (Katie Chang), who dazzles him with her popularity and glamour, even though she's a reckless kleptomaniac prone to steal from unlocked cars or sneak into the homes of vacationers. Meanwhile, Rebecca's most dimwitted BFF Nicki (Emma Watson) sits through vacuous homeschooling lessons from her mother (a very funny Leslie Mann), who subscribes to the self-help program "The Secret." Watson, famous as Harry Potter's book-smart buddy Hermione, clearly relishes the chance to play against type.

When Rebecca reads in the news that Paris Hilton's out of town, she and her friends look up her address on-line and decide to sneak in. (They correctly guess that Hilton leaves her key under the mat.) Partly the group relishes the chance to steal designer clothes and accessories, but they also like to bask in the celebrity's finery. A symbol of unearned fame and conspicuous consumption, Hilton actually participated in The Bling Ring: she not only appears in a wordless cameo across a crowded club, she allowed Coppola to film The Bling Ring in her actual residence for two weeks, so we can marvel at her bedroom-sized shoe closet, her ubiquitous framed cover shots and her party room with stripper pole.

Given that certain celebrities make headlines and TMZ stories for shoplifting and petty crimes, it's not surprising that they set bad examples for Rebecca, Nicki and company, although Marc at least fears being caught. They essentially become hooked on breaking into celebrity homes, and one particularly thrilling shot shows Rebecca and Marc breaking into the house of "The Hills'" Audrina Partridge. The building's glass walls not only reveal Rebecca and Mark sneaking from room to room, they represent the way the internet can make the entire world transparent. Rebecca and her cohorts love to take smart phone photos of themselves with their latest acquisitions. It never occurs to them that the "selfies" they post on Facebook might become evidence against them.

While Coppola's previous films, particularly Lost in Translation, cultivate an atmosphere of languid angst, The Bling Ring revels in youthful energy, conveying both the thrills of breaking the law and the greed at claiming fabulous belongings. The film captures the emptiness of certain facets of the modern zeitgeist, but lacks a strong emotional element. Marc serves as the film's closest character to a moral center, yet remains too passive to even be an antihero. He never challenges his bullying, stylish gal pals, even though they treat him more as an adoring audience than an equal.

Ultimately The Bling Ring feels of a piece with the juvenile-delinquent exploitation films of half a century ago. You wouldn't be surprised to hear one of the teens declare, "I did it for the kicks!" Plus, the film adds to the notoriety of these fashion-forward little hoodlums, implying that to prey on a celebrity offers a shortcut to becoming one.

The Bling Ring. 4 stars. Directed by Sofia Coppola. Stars Katie Chang, Emma Watson. Rated R. Opens Fri., June 14. At area theaters.

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