The Good, The Bad, and The Bling Ring

This Thursday I decided to post my midterm from the film reviewing class I’m taking. There was an additional week where I did a 300 word review for this film but essentially the post before you is just an expansion of that shorter review. And since I do love to ramble, I’m giving you my long form. Enjoy.

As a film critic, friends and family often ask me what I think of the latest crop at the box office as if I have the secret to understanding movies. My answer is always to explain the difference between liking a film and thinking a film was good. While such basic terms are naturally subjective, they are not mutually exclusive either: technically “good” films can be enjoyable to a mass audience. Finding that perfect combination of the two in a single film is the eternal struggle of Hollywood. I have loved films that were critically panned and loathed more than a few that were lauded. The latest example to come across my keyboard is Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013), which is not what I would call a “good” movie but it is a film that I cannot get enough of.

Based on the bubblegum true crime story, which debuted as a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales, The Bling Ring luxuriates in the selfishness of five teenagers that robbed celebrity homes from October of 2008 to August 2009. The film does not explicitly state the time frame, but the story could have benefited from a stronger sense of time and place. Scenes of decadent robbery are repeated one on top of the other with little concept of the moments that stand between each crime. As a critic, I think this repetition is a central flaw that keeps The Bling Ring from being a “good” movie. As a fan, I am captivated by the voyeuristic element of invading celebrity homes that apes reality television with a dark twist.

When members of the real bling ring were caught in 2009, seven people were arrested. Coppola chose to focus her story slightly by following five of the culprits, and this decision has led to a stronger ensemble dynamic. Truly, the writer/director’s long-standing interest with self-involved characters has found its pinnacle with these fame obsessed teenagers who readily manipulate the truth for their own benefit. Coppola’s story flirts back and forth with the past and present identities of her young criminals with simulated interviews and therapy sessions after the teens have been caught. These post-crime scenes are full of white light to add the illusion of a halo over the young devils, who masterfully contradict the story playing before the audience’s eyes so that they evade culpability. Emma Watson as Nicki Moore shines brightest in these sequences of denial, her performance the perfect modern, nasal Valley Girl. If one cares to look up the abundant video clips of the real life Nicki, Alexis Neiers, then Watson’s performance reaches the level of uncanny reproduction. Unfortunately for the other young actors—Israel Broussard, Katie Chang, Claire Julien, and Taissa Farmiga—their collective performances did not yield a breakout moment. The problem here is that they were sufficiently superficial in their respective roles as Marc, Rebecca, Chloe, and Sam to the point that they disappeared into those roles. That is not to say that there is no potential for these budding artists, as I believe they were well cast, merely that they did not grab fame at this particular moment.

The Bling Ring beautifully illustrates Coppola’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer and director more so than other films in her opus. The good and the bad of this film create a push-pull that is borderline dizzying. For instance, one of Sophia Coppola’s hallmarks is the use of on-trend music as an additional character or layer for her films. The electro-pop soundtrack featuring the likes of Azealia Banks, Kanye West, and Deadmau5 are precisely on the frantic pulse of youth. Yet the film is strongest when Coppola allows silence. The scene where Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Marc (Israel Broussard) break into Audrina Patridge’s house has a distant, doll-house perspective and its eerie quiet adds a much needed sense of tension. The teenage sense of immortality needed to be brought low at least once and the film never really tarnishes that veneer of being untouchable. Another strength of the film is Coppola’s ability to utilize the mixed media trend that seems to be on the rise in Hollywood. The Bling Ring opens with actual footage pulled from a celebrity’s security camera during the robberies and Coppola intercuts the narrative with news stories and Facebook feeds. Nevertheless the issue of repetition lingers throughout the film from beginning to end, and while this is arguably her most successful film since Lost in Translation (2003), The Bling Ring proves that Coppola could benefit from more forceful editing.

Placing the film within the scope of its peers might better illustrate the difficulties of “liking” The Bling Ring versus judging its quality as “good” or “bad.” Looking back on the films of 2013, it is clear that Hollywood has created a yearlong ode to American Greed, and The Bling Ring falls somewhere around stanza two. Why stanza two you may ask? The second stanza is not where poets place their best lines or images. Stanza two is necessary to the larger purpose of a poem but typically lacks the power of the first and last stanzas. 2013 began its ode with Blue Jasmine, a subtle, esoteric study of Acting (yes, the capital A is necessary) and rounded off the theme of hedonism with the stunning excess of The Wolf of Wall Street. Coppola’s film is more closely aligned with Spring Breakers— another American Greed based teen drama—with its kitschy plot and bright color palette. It’s interesting to note that yellow factors prominently into the marketing of The Wolf of Wall Street, Spring Breakers, and The Bling Ring, making yellow the color of greed instead of the expected green. These are all films for a new generation who inhabit a world where internet savvy and celebrity branding are as natural as breathing. While Coppola does a fair job of capturing that world with her characters and displays of fame mongering, The Bling Ring falls short in comparison to these filmic giants of American Greed. I may like the film, but I would not recommend it over its counterparts; that, in essence, is why The Bling Ring is not a “good” movie.

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