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Bling Ring, The
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by Brett Gallman

"Coppola examines a modern Gilded Age."
4 stars

“The Bling Ring” feels like a superficial movie about superficial people, a bare-essentials chronicle of a true story that could only matter to a hollow culture that inspired it in the first place. If it were centered on a rash of robberies involving ordinary folks, one wonders if it’d make the national news, much less theaters. But because the victims here were celebrities, we have a movie that shines a brief light on it, pokes it a bit, and then moves on, almost as if to say “nothing to see here”—because there isn’t.

Don’t mistake that as a scathing critique of Sofia Coppola’s work here. I’d like to think that this is the best possible film that could emerge from Nancy Jo Sales’s Vanity Fair article detailing the exploits of the so-called “Bling Ring,” a group of upper-class Los Angeles teenagers who took a liking to breaking into celebrities’ homes and robbing them on a petty scale. Well, relatively petty—they wind up with about $3 million in merchandise, but the individual robberies usually find them pilfering small amounts from mountains of junk.

One of their frequent targets is Paris Hilton, whose Hollywood Hills mansion is an absurd monument to sheer opulence. Hilton allowed Coppola to film the actual interior, which (perhaps unwittingly) provides some of the funniest sight gags in the movie. The stairway in particular is lined with magazine covers graced with Hilton’s vapid, rigid visage that all but screams “look at my shit—and this shit, and that shit, too.” There’s so much shit here that she’d never notice the stuff that gets swiped, even as the group returns six or seven times over the course of their spree.

As the teens creep up the steps, they’re in slack-jawed awe, of course. Hilton’s home represents everything they’ve been conditioned to aspire to, only nobody’s bothered to work for it (probably because Hilton herself didn’t really, either), so they waltz in, take what they want, then sneak out. Then they party, brag about their exploits, and even post pictures on Facebook posing with their stolen goods. Youth might be wasted on the young, but intelligence is not, and “The Bling Ring” makes a mockery out of an easy target. Teenagers typically believe themselves to be invincible or beyond reproach, and this bunch is no different. They’re also much worse than the typical teen due to a reprehensible sense of entitlement.

Coppola has frequently captured the teenage condition quite well, and “The Bling Ring” reflects a very ugly, specific form of it by allowing its subjects to essentially dig their own graves through glib dialogue and careless activities that shrug off anything that really matters. When one of them has a car accident as a result of drunk driving, she literally laughs it off before complaining about the community service she’ll have to endure now. “The Bling Ring” is littered with moments that make its characters’ obliviousness palatable. These kids don’t have outright contempt for common courtesy, decency, or morality—they have no notion of it. They belong to a generation born on the edge of sociopathy, and the film chronicles their plunge.

“The Bling Ring” documents that plunge with an approach that falls somewhere between the journalistic source material (it’s framed by the characters’ interviews with Sales) and Coppola’s attempt to drag it into a more cinematic realm. There’s not a lot of meat to the story, so the film degenerates into a bunch of episodic sequences where the kids rob houses and sift through all the junk. Coppola shoots them with a style that initially feels kind of exhilarating and shares in the thrill; however, her camera winds up lingering just long enough to cast judgment, and an uneasy feeling starts to creep around the edges.

One robbery is captured entirely through a long shot that silently observes two of the teens snaking through a house as sirens and coyotes howl in the distance. Their getaways are often uneasy, too; instead of feeling triumphant, they carry a moody, almost sinister vibe as the teens creep down highways enveloped by darkness.

In between the robberies, the girls live a music video sort of existence where they go clubbing just like the stars, complete with snorting lines of coke through hundred dollar bills. None of this is glamourized, either—it’s shot like a music video but feels too flat to be bombastic, and it’s more like muscle memory than genuine revelry, conditioned by their preoccupation with socialites and celebrities. Stealing their material goods isn’t just enough—they have to somehow siphon the lifestyle altogether, even if they’re not entirely sure why they want it.

There’s a detachment to the proceedings that’s initially easy to mistake for sloppiness; instead, it’s really a frivolous film that tackles its subjects’ own aimlessness. Preoccupations are razor sharp, while motivations are perfunctory—the spree starts with Marc (Israel Broussard), a gay teen (whose sexuality is refreshingly incidental) who becomes smitten with Rebecca (Katie Chang), and the duo become a platonic Bonnie and Clyde initially prone to stealing from neighbors before graduating to celebrity targets.

Naturally, the two can’t help but brag, and their urges spread like a disease among their friends—before long, they number a half dozen, their exploits unfolding with a gentle ennui that mirrors how their thrill-seeking morphs into compulsion. For newcomers like Nicki (Emma Watson), it’s an impulse that she acts on with all the conviction of a Valley Girl who wants to hit up the mall with her besties. Setting on a protagonist here isn’t easy (nor is it something the film is interested in—it free floats and surveys as it pleases), but Nicki is arguably the mascot for “The Bling Ring,” a vapid, self-absorbed girl whose lack of self-awareness becomes the film’s recurring joke as it simmers towards its conclusion. “Is this casual enough?” she asks as she adjusts a form-fitting dress for her court date.

By that point, “The Bling Ring” has mutated from a quietly observant recounting to a TMZ episode that allows the group to show off more conditioned reflexes when they’re finally surrounded by flashbulbs and tabloid cameras. Life up until this point has been a dress rehearsal where they’ve been the understudy to the rich and famous—finally, they’re able to revel in that lifestyle. Just as they instinctively popped pills and snorted coke, they unfurl prepared—and ludicrous—statements for the press.

They give interviews that allow Coppola to anvil her themes home, a device that feels tacky and obvious but also correct—these teenagers believe they’re offering deep introspections and self-reflection, but their insights are shallow. Likewise, “The Bling Ring” itself thrives on treading on and around the surface, particularly when it fully bares its satirical teeth.

It might also be a bit deceptive since its target isn’t quite as obvious. Coppola neither sympathizes with nor completely savages these teenagers, and their authentic portrayal grounds the film and keeps it from becoming an outright farce. Perpetually buried behind designer shades and caught up in their own gabby world, they have little to no actual guidance. Occasionally, Nicki’s mother (a perfectly oblivious Leslie Mann) imparts both Adderall and wisdom inspired by “The Secret,” a gumbo of self-help and mysticism that also doubles as a home-school curriculum.

Repeating that sounds like the setup to a joke, and, while it is sort of uncomfortably funny, there’s also a sadness that isn’t lost on Coppola. She doesn’t present them as victims so much as symptoms of a culture gone awry, one that values value and glorifies glory. They’re a lost generation who can’t be anything because nothing really means anything, and here’s an appropriately surface-level movie that observes emptiness by refusing to plumb psychological depths or dig for explanations.

And yet the film doesn’t resort to a curmudgeon's lament: it’s not a wake, it’s not a celebration—it’s just a document that refracts back onto itself. After all, would it exist if we didn’t live in a society that reveres celebrities in the first place? If nothing else, the film makes us uncomfortable about our relationship with them—yes, this is a film that asks us to consider Paris Hilton to be a victim in more ways than one.

2013 hasn’t been kind to the American Dream, an ideal that hasn’t faded but has instead passed into a myth that remembers the wealth and the fame but not the blood and the sweat. “The Bling Ring” is the latest film to notice this, and it edges into the same territory as “Spring Breakers.” Whereas Korine’s film highlighted banality with a discordant, vigorous style, Coppala’s is a relatively restrained take that reveals a thorough infection that’s spread its way all the way to the top.

Even the kids who are born with everything just want more of everything, be it raw junk, fame, or infamy. There's plenty to go around if they just go out there and take it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25096&reviewer=429
originally posted: 06/22/13 22:16:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/30/13 JeremyEM Glad to read a review by someone who loved the film 4 stars
10/11/13 mr.mike Well done, much better than Spring Breakers. 4 stars
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