The Bling Ring

When a group of over-privileged, under-supervised L.A. teenagers steal millions of dollars in cash and property from celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, it’s easy to feel superior to everyone involved. Easy and appropriate: you most likely ARE better than these people. But that feeling of moral high ground, and the satisfaction of seeing shallow idiots get their comeuppance, are all that Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” has to offer. It’s 90 minutes of derisive mockery and finger-pointing. We agree with the sentiment, sure. But what about it?

Coppola adapted the story from Nancy Jo Sales’ Vanity Fair article about the real-life teens who were arrested in 2009 for their brazen, high-profile burglaries of famous people’s houses, as well as more mundane crimes like stealing regular people’s credit cards. The film begins with one of the culprits, the infuriatingly vapid Nicki (Emma Watson, doing a spot-on Southern California accent), spouting some self-serving baloney to TMZ cameras about how she sees the whole experience (i.e., arrest, trial, conviction) as a potential learning experience and opportunity for growth. She sounds just like the celebutantes she emulates, who are the very same people she stole from.

It’s a story that could only happen today. Entitled, pampered teens idolize entitled, pampered celebrities, and easily track their whereabouts by keeping an eye on gossip websites. (“Paris Hilton is at a party in Las Vegas tonight!” Ah, so that means she’s not home…) The kids steal the celebs’ stuff, then talk about it on Facebook, which is the non-celeb equivalent of TMZ. Eventually they get caught, which means they get famous — which is all they ever really wanted in the first place.

The ringleader is Rebecca (Katie Chang), a reality-TV-obsessed girl who finds a kindred spirit in Marc (Israel Broussard), a semi-outcast who’s just transferred to her alternative high school and is similarly interested in celebrity gossip and high fashion. They start by burglarizing the home of someone Marc knows, then advance to more noteworthy victims. They savor the opportunity not just to get some expensive trinkets and clothes, but to vicariously live the lives of the people they worship.

They bring Nicki and her adopted sister, Sam (Taissa Farmiga), into the act. Nicki and Sam want to be actresses and/or reality TV stars, and are encouraged by their hilariously superficial mother (Leslie Mann), who home-schools them from a curriculum based on “The Secret.” All of the teens party at nightclubs whenever they can, drinking and taking drugs as if there were no consequences, suffering from that most familiar of teenage delusions: invincibility.

There’s a certain lurid fascination in seeing head-shakingly misguided people wreck their lives, especially when it also lets us indulge in our national pastime of clucking at “kids these days.” “The Bling Ring” isn’t quite a satire of youthful hedonism, the toxicity of which is self-evident, but it is often funny in the way it reduces the vain teens to their basic, ugly elements.

All of this Coppola recreates dispassionately, without insight, though at least she’s assembled a thumpin’ soundtrack (Kanye West, M.I.A., Sleigh Bells, Frank Ocean, et al) to accompany it. Her smirking disapproval of the teens’ actions and attitudes is clear enough — to think she’s portraying their scandalous lives as “glamorous” would be to miss the point entirely — but that’s all it is: disapproval. A closer examination of what makes the kids this way, or how it reflects on society as a whole, or the uncomfortable similarities some of us share with them, would have given the film some much-needed oomph.

C (1 hr., 30 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, a few sexual references.)

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