Based on the incredible real-life escapades of five middle-class Calabasas teenagers, Sophia Coppola’s latest film as writer/director, The Bling Ring, is a cautionary tale about the absurdity and dangers of lusting after vacuous celebrity lifestyles. Inspired by the Vanity Fair article ‘The Suspects Wore Louboutins‘ by Nancy Jo Sales from 2010, the film drops us in the middle of the Bling Ring posse who from 2008 to 2009 managed to burgle upwards of three million dollars worth of clothing, accessories and cash from the homes of some serious (tabloid) celebrities: Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr, Brian Austin Green and Megan Fox, and Rachel Bilson among others.
The film itself is a bit like reading New Weekly magazine – fun, obnoxious and horrifying – with a standout, hammy, performance from Emma Watson as Nicki (based on Bling Ringer Alexis Neiers), a cameo from Paris Hilton, and a killer soundtrack featuring Sleigh Bells and Azealia Banks. In the film’s Press Kit, Coppola says of the teenagers: ‘they’re fascinating to people how far they took things. We all like looking at tabloids sometimes, and these kids are the extreme of that’. Though Coppola’s certainly right about the appeal the teenagers hold, her implication that she is one of us Regular Joes – ‘we all like tabloids’– is absurd.
Having spent the better part of her teenage and adult life safe in the knowledge that she is an exceedingly wealthy celebrity, Coppola is well placed to comment on the vacuity of tabloid fame and celebrity. Indeed, her last film, Somewhere (2010), starring a lifeless Stephen Dorff, was a dull and humourless tale of the boredom and monotony of being a celebrity. (As an aside, it was Dorff who told Paris that Sophia wanted to speak with her about the movie; Paris agreed to theft scenes actually being shot in her mansion.) But the notion of celebrity in The Bling Ring works in reverse: the kids are not so famous as to be bored by its excess; they see it everywhere and they want a little of its shimmer. The situation recalls the truism that it’s only people with money who say that it’s not important.
The title sequence of the film more accurately sums up the position Coppola is speaking (for the teenagers) from: a close up on a table of jewellery with the words “written and directed by” – then a bracelet saying ‘Rich Bitch’ – followed by “Sophia Coppola”. Sure, Coppola’s own celebrity beacon shines with an edgy, indie cool far more than say, Paris’s sparkly bikinis, personalised cushions, miniature dogs and sex tapes. And perhaps most crucially of all Coppola’s stardom appears to be earned while Paris’s seems self-inflating. However, that Paris admits, ‘Just being in a Sophia Coppola movie is an honour’, shows the diminished degrees of celebrity difference between them: they at least exist in different regions of the same world, while we mortals gape at them from another planet.
With Rich Bitch at the helm, then, The Bling Ring works as a strange sort of cautionary tale told from the perspective of a celebrity tourist looking in on a bunch of freakish teenagers desiring what she takes for granted: tabloid pulling power and careless wealth. Adding further to the celebrity hall of mirrors effect is the ironic casting of the enormously famous Emma Watson as a teenager desperate for attention. Of all the characters in the film, hers is shown to be the most eager to speak to journalists and to address reporters once the stealing frenzy eventually stops. A particular high point is when she becomes increasingly frustrated with her mother, played by Leslie Mann, for chiming in during one of her interviews – presumably maintaining people’s attention is not a problem for the real-life Watson. And when she says to reporters outside the Courthouse, ‘I wanna lead a country one day for all I know’, we experience a moment of the uncanny – the nine-year-old Hermione Granger is all grown up and turned into a moron.
While wildly entertaining, The Bling Ring is a bit like one big celebrity circle-jerk, stroking each other wildly as they wonder why anyone would want what they have. And in a perfect reflection of this celebrity hall of mirrors, the film gives the real-life Bling Ringers at least a refracted part of what they were trying to steal: fame.
Kate Harper studied cinema at the University of Melbourne. She is a freelance writer and weekly film reviewer for ABC Radio.