For a brief and blinding moment in 2009, the Bling Ring crime spree ruled the social networks, TV news cycles and front pages of newspapers around the globe, including this one. At the time, I was bothered by the way the stories about a gang of affluent teen fashionistas stealing from trend-setting local celebrities underscored our out-of-control obsession with fame.
Sofia Coppola's new movie about the real-life Hollywood caper does not bring any comfort.
"The Bling Ring" is a warped tour of the teens' short but lucrative run when they lifted more than $3 million in luxe goods from the homes of Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan and others. Jewelry was their spoil of choice, thus the name.
One of the complexities of watching "The Bling Ring" is figuring out which subset of humanity to dislike the most. All in this sardonic tragedy are distinctly sketched in by the filmmaker.
The obvious choice would be the larcenous teens from tony San Fernando Valley neighborhoods. They are brought to vacuous life by the movie's stars: Emma Watson portrays flirty Nicki, her clipped British accent disappearing inside Valley-girl speak, her time spent in front of mirrors alarming. Taissa Farmiga plays Sam, the wild one, or perhaps the wildest one would be more accurate.
Impressive newcomer Katie Chang steps in as Bling Ring mastermind and driven shopaholic Rebecca. Marc (Israel Broussard) is the new kid at school and the one who has the best fashion sense. Chloe (Claire Julien) is so beautifully blond she can't be bothered.
They are model-thin, arrogant and camera-ready — despite Marc's worry that he doesn't have an A-list face. Their sense of entitlement and complete lack of a moral center make them a tough bunch to like.
And yet, meet the parents.
The ones who didn't notice the endless new outfits and easy cash. Or that their underage teenagers were clubbing all night, every night. Nicki's mom, played by Leslie Mann ("This Is 40," "Knocked Up"), becomes the metaphor for all the rest. It is not so much the Botox blank stare that undoes you, but the morning empowerment circle with her girls, the vision boards, "The Secret" as parenting guide. Dense is not a natural fit for an actress much more at home playing tart, smart and slightly crazy.
Finally there are the victims.
In all, about 50 houses were targeted. Bloom, Lohan, Rachel Bilson and Megan Fox were among the higher profile hits. But Hilton's pad held the place of honor. Her closet got multiple raids and she opened her home for the filmmaker's use.
I'm hoping that what we see of Hilton's things on screen is a case of production designer Anne Ross going a little nuts. Otherwise I don't know whether to laugh or cry at the level of narcissism on display — pillows covered in silk-screen images of the heiress/entrepreneur, walls bursting with magazine covers featuring either that oh-so-precious pout or ever-so-small smile.
The celebrities are seen either in fawning red carpet clips or through their huge stockpiles of pricey possessions. Neither look is pretty.
Coppola drew her inspiration not only from the actual events and people, but Nancy Jo Sales' fine Vanity Fair piece, "The Suspect Wore Louboutins." It makes the story feel very familiar.
Still, the filmmaker has taken a good deal of liberty with the facts, enough that names and some of the specifics have been changed.
The action is constantly moving — a day in the life circling through school, beach hangouts, nightclubs and the break-ins. A few post-arrest interviews are dropped in every so often. They seem designed as ironic, rather than pure comic, relief.
As to the treatment of the burglaries themselves, Coppola lingers, lets them take center stage. The movie is, after all, about things as much as people.
The Peeping Tom perspective makes it strangely addictive to watch. And the teens are entertaining, mercilessly critiquing the celebrities' tastes as they rummage through their designer labels, slip on the Louboutins, and rake through piles of gem-encrusted baubles. Only drugs and cash were snatched without question or comment.
Much of the loot was cellphone-snapped — for posterity, I guess — then posted on Facebook.
Like a meta moment, the movie captures the social networking in loving detail too. For the final time, the camera was in the good hands of frequent Coppola collaborator Harris Savides, who passed away not long after the film wrapped. (Christopher Blauvelt is the film's second cinematographer.)
For the incredible ensembles the actors — and closets — are dressed in, credit costume designer Stacey Battat.
Everything about "The Bling Ring" is beautifully rendered, with an attention to detail that has become a Coppola signature so lushly realized in the bouffants and bustles of 2006's "Marie Antoinette."
The filmmaker clearly has an ear for dialogue as well. She certainly nails the privileged Valley teen here.
Yet with the exception of 2003's "Lost in Translation," which remains a brilliant high for Coppola, there is much about the director's work that somehow does end up lost in translation. She stays ever at a distance, keenly observing but never taking a stand.
In "The Bling Ring," that leaves the characters with no discernible emotional arc. These teens flat-line from start to finish.
For a story to grab you, someone needs to live or die, fall in or out of love, or at least learn something about themselves. The periodic cuts to the interviews after the teenagers' arrests, the spots where you might expect some insight, offer little.
Make no mistake, it is lovely to look at this celebrity bedazzled bit of L.A. crime history for a while. But the movie ultimately leaves you feeling as empty as the lives it means to portray.
'The Bling Ring'
MPAA rating: R for teen drug and alcohol use, and for language including some brief sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles, AMC Century City