In “The Bling Ring,” Sofia Coppola builds a beautiful zoo and invites us over to look at the animals. The zoo is Los Angeles — where postmodern mansions cling to the sides of canyons and less blessed suburbs cluster below — and the beasts prowling the enclosures are the young, the pretty, and the soulless. Boys and girls with nothing at all inside them, gazing into their cellphones as if they were mirrors. Don’t bother to feed them. They can take care of themselves.
The film is based closely on actual events, reported in a 2010 Vanity Fair article that, in retrospect, reads like a shooting script. From October 2008 to August 2009, a group of high school students from Calabasas robbed a series of celebrities’ homes, using the Internet to find out when their victims would be out of town. They took mostly designer clothes, accessories, and jewelry, and the thrill lay as much in crashing the lifestyles of the rich and famous as in coming away with loot. Because they were young and stupid, they were eventually caught, but “The Bling Ring” is less concerned with comeuppance than in gazing at these kids and marveling at their hollowness. In a way, the film plays like a more tasteful and less bonkers version of the recent “Spring Breakers.” The comparison isn’t to Coppola’s benefit.
Marc (Israel Broussard) is the new kid in school, taken under the wing of Rebecca (Katie Chang), a chic, bored queen bee. The robberies start as her secret, first shared with Marc and then involving the rest of her friends: hard-partying Chloe (Claire Julien), vapid Sam (Taissa Farmiga), a dead-eyed little shark named Nicki (Emma Watson). They get into the homes of Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, and other “names” through unlocked patio doors and open windows. At Paris Hilton’s house, the key is under the mat.
Hilton’s house plays itself, by the way, and the star is glimpsed during a nightclub scene, happy to go along for the ride. What must Hilton think when the robbers in this movie invade her actual “party room,” a monumentally tacky shrine to self? Probably not much; it just means she’s famous, which is why the Bling Ring is drawn there time and again — to get high off their nearness to fame. That nightclub scene has a shot that’s a chilling miniature of the film as a whole: the crew seated on a banquette, each silently staring into his or her phone while scanning texts and celebrity gossip. Welcome to the new togetherness.
The performances are a mixed bag — Coppola casts her newcomers for jadedness in most cases — but Watson obliterates all memories of Hermione Granger as the savage yet savvy Nicki, who lives for instafame and downshifts into the language of personal recovery the moment she’s arrested. There are a handful of exquisite LA moments in “The Bling Ring”: lines like “Girls, it’s time for your Adderall — you know it’s a school night,” or a nighttime robbery sequence shot from outside a glowing cube of a star’s house up in the hills, the soundtrack filled with distant sirens and the howl of coyotes. Nicki’s face, hard and adaptable, may be the truest LA image of all.
“The Bling Ring” was the final project of Harris Savides, a cinematographer whose work for David Fincher, Gus Van Sant, and Noah Baumbach did much to establish the look of ambitious independent filmmaking over the past two decades. Savides died in October — the film is dedicated to him — and his cameraman, Christopher Blauvelt, stepped in to finish the job. Visually, the movie is cool, altogether ravishing, and its style almost becomes a provocation. As beautiful to look at as its characters want to be, “The Bling Ring” is a double-edged seduction.
Yet that style also keeps us at arm’s length, and the film slowly turns monotonous. What are we meant to think about these kids, or feel for them? Marc is the only remotely likable member of the gang — he has occasional qualms of conscience, and, tellingly, he’s one of the few males — but Coppola seems to view the others with a reserve that could be admiring or could be appalled. She only tips her hand in the scenes involving Nicki’s mother (Leslie Mann), a cheerfully idiotic New Age featherbrain who leads her kids in daily affirmations that they parrot and ignore.
Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to get beneath the surface of “The Bling Ring,” and only partly because surfaces are what the movie’s about. Coppola is a famously nonjudgmental filmmaker — this is the director who got us to sympathize with Marie Antoinette — but she’s a Hollywood kid who grew up around people like Marc and Nicki and she knows the type all too well. The studied impassivity of “The Bling Ring” feels increasingly like a dodge as the movie progresses; we sense an anger and a moralism that the director’s too cool or too wary or too close to engage. There are invisible bars separating us from these animals, but it’s never clear who they’re meant to protect.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.