Few filmmakers working today can create a mood like Sofia Coppola. From her stunning 1999 debut film, “The Virgin Suicides,” through “Lost in Translation,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Somewhere,” Coppola has proved to be that rare filmmaker willing to buck the tyranny of narrative and tidy three-act structure, and instead exploit the cinematic medium for its richest textures, allusions and expressionistic visual depth.
Coppola brings those same poetics to “The Bling Ring,” a modern-day cautionary tale about youth run amok that, for all its ripped-from-the-headlines topicality, still exudes a dreamy, otherworldly perfume. Based on the story of a group of Los Angeles teenagers who cased, then robbed the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and other celebrities, “The Bling Ring” taps into the same fears and voyeuristic horror that have characterized teen problem pictures throughout the decades: Whether it’s motorcycles, street gangs, marijuana or sexuality, there’s never been a cultural anxiety that movies couldn’t process into alternately lurid and scolding entertainment.
Today, of course, our concerns center on technology — both for what kids are doing with it and how it’s affecting those malleable frontal lobes with their still-forming moral centers. Throw in proximity to celebrities and a media culture driven by invidious addiction to pictures of other people’s stuff and you get “The Bling Ring,” as chilling a portrait of adolescent amorality as the most alarmist B-flick from the 1950s, albeit with far prettier pictures and better music.
Beginning at the end — with Bling Ring member Nicki (Emma Watson) facing trial and ditzily announcing that her life of crime has been “a huge learning lesson for me” — “The Bling Ring” flashes back to how it all got started in L.A.’s beige, featureless San Fernando Valley. A bored high school student named Rebecca (Katie Chang) meets a misfit new kid named Marc (Israel Broussard), who quickly proves he knows his way around Miu Miu and hair extensions. Soon he’s part of Rebecca’s posse, which includes Nicki, her bestie-slash-sister, Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien), all of them schooled in the rhetoric of self-esteem, empowerment and the selfie-centered world of Facebook and its narcissistic satellites.
Powered by free-flowing alcohol, weed and the Adderall that Nicki’s mom hands out every morning like Corn Flakes, the kids realize that, thanks to gossip Web sites like TMZ, they can figure out when various famous people are out of town; thanks to GPS and Google Maps, they can just as easily find out where they live. Lo and behold, stars aren’t just like us — they don’t lock their doors — and before long, Rebecca and Marc are leading their vapid friends on a series of heists of millions of dollars worth of clothing, jewelry and household items.
The robberies themselves take on a monotonous dullness in “The Bling Ring” — a scene set in Hilton’s real-life home, a gauche altar to her persona in which even the throw pillows sport her image — loses punch as the thieves return again and again (presumably she didn’t notice her things were missing at first). And the characters are so shallow, so devoid of self-awareness or genuine soul, that it’s difficult to maintain interest in their exploits. They take on a hardened, exhausted look as their spree wears on, with only Broussard’s Marc exhibiting vulnerability worthy of sympathy. Watson’s Nicki might have been a satirical figure in the mold of Nicole Kidman’s brilliant turn in “To Die For”; instead, she’s content to pose and gloss her lips — perhaps appropriate for the real person she’s playing, but tiresomely repetitive nonetheless.
But Coppola doesn’t have the stinging sense of irony or outrage of a commentator. Instead, she contemplates, and in doing so is able to find improbable transcendence. The film’s finest moment, filmed by the late cinematographer Harris Savides, documents a robbery in a nighttime shot captured across the hill from a glass house, where two thieves steal the finery inside in a silent, weirdly beautiful pantomime.
“The Bling Ring” is full of such visual richness, recalling “Marie Antoinette” in its lush montages of material objects and evocative places. But for all of Coppola’s bravura with images, she never summons the wherewithal to judge her wayward protagonists. (As with “Antoinette,” the viewer sometimes wonders whether Coppola is decrying the materialism and heedlessness she’s chronicling or indulging in it.) If the filmmaker casts blame in “The Bling Ring,” it’s directed squarely at the parents, whether they’re eagerly pushing their kids into acting classes and auditions or, like Leslie Mann’s New Age-y single mom, home schooling their kids with a curriculum based on the self-help book “The Secret.”
The dark irony of “The Bling Ring” is that, while compulsively documenting their crimes for social media, the thieves themselves became famous (at one point Marc compares the ring to a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde), and fame eventually proved to be their downfall. Like a seductively lambent hall of mirrors, “The Bling Ring” lays bare the venality of train-wreck celebrity culture, striving and self-deception by dramatizing a fact that’s as delicious as it is depressing: When one of the Bling Ring members goes to jail, she shares a cell block with another young woman recently arrested for larceny, and it’s Lindsay Lohan herself.
R. At area theaters. Contains profanity, including some brief sexual references, and teen drug and alcohol use. 87 minutes.