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No Green Light

by Ross Douthat

A review of The Bling Ring

The Bling Ring, the latest film from Sofia Coppola, marks something of a departure for its director. After several movies that have looked at the celebrity lifestyle from the inside — whether in the fancy hotels of Asia and California or in their 18th-century equivalent, Versailles — she’s decided to tell a story about how celebrity culture influences the kind of people who are on the outside looking in.

Her subjects this time are a gang of upper-middle-class L.A. girls (and one hapless guy) who perpetrated a string of high-profile burglaries about five years ago, robbing such stars as Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and then, when the cops caught up with them, leveraging their notoriety into the celebrity they obviously craved. It’s a story that seems perfectly calibrated to illustrate the strange anxieties of affluence, the way that privilege often only generates an even stronger urge to get further up and further in, and the role that “famous for being famous” figures such as Hilton and Lohan play in making stardom seem oddly accessible — something easily grasped, or in this case easily stolen.

But to show any of this, Coppola would have needed to muster some sympathy for her fame-addled, Rolex-hoarding subjects, and instead she seems to regard them as dead souls, beyond her ability to penetrate or understand. None of the kids are given real backstories, none of their conversations rise above banality, and there’s almost nothing in any of the young actors’ performances that hints at any motivation beyond peer pressure and the lust for bling.

Our point-of-view character is Marc (Israel Broussard), a socially awkward, probably gay high-schooler who falls under the spell of Rebecca (Katie Chang) and helps her make the leap from casual kleptomania to robbing Orlando Bloom. Marc is the closest the film has to a human center, because he expresses a little bit of self-loathing to an interviewer and because he’s the only member of the ring who ever seems even to imagine that they might get caught. But he’s three-dimensional only in comparison with the girls, whose unremitting vapidity is at first amusing, and then tedious, and then all too easy to simply tune out.

The most entertaining is Nicki, the member of the ring whose quest for fame went farthest (she briefly had her own post-prison reality-TV show), and who’s played by Harry Potter veteran Emma Watson with a hateful narcissism that seems intended to bury the memory of Hermione Granger. But even her insistent awfulness grows tiring, and the rest of the posse — Chang’s ringleader included — are just unmemorable clichés of SoCal solipsism, with eyes as blank as their pilfered designer sunglasses.

Which may be Coppola’s point, I suppose — that there’s no there there, because the interactions between celebrity culture, consumerism, and social media have produced a generation of teenagers with designer-bag wish lists where their hearts should be. But if that was what she wanted to say, then the movie needed to be more savagely satirical, rather than cool, distant, clinical, chilly. Especially given the filmmaker’s own background: I know that it’s predictable to judge Coppola by her biography, but there’s something a little off-putting about a daughter of Hollywood privilege going from a series of movies that work very hard to humanize actual celebrities — think of Bill Murray as a faded movie star in Lost in Translation, oozing existential angst — to a movie that effectively dehumanizes the hapless teenage dolts caught in the celebrity-industrial complex’s wake.

The director has an answer for that, judging by a recent New York Times interview in which she dismissed any comparison between her own background and the celebrity culture that features in The Bling Ring. Yes, she allowed, “people think I grew up around that or something,” but “to me, Al Pacino and Paris Hilton are different, you know what I mean?”

Which is fair enough, in a sense — but then this movie feels a little like high-art Hollywood revenging itself on trashy Hollywood, with the audience’s experience a victim of the crossfire. There has to be something more to say about Paris Hilton and her fans than that they’re stupid and vacuous. Or if that’s all there is to say, then maybe it wasn’t worth Coppola’s time and talent to say it.

It’s also a strange film to watch so soon after Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which was widely criticized for glamorizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous even more than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel did. But in both Gatsby the movie and Gatsby the book, the lure of glamour and glitz is intertwined — as it is in life — with higher human aspirations, and the story shows us the inherent attractions of privilege precisely in order to make us sympathize with, and understand, the criminal arriviste-cum-madman at the center of the story.

That kind of sympathy and understanding is what’s glaringly missing from The Bling Ring. It’s a Gatsby with all the meretriciousness and none of the yearning, all of the parties and no green light. And if it’s an artistically accurate rendering of its subjects, then so much the worse for art.

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