In the opening sequence of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, the titular crew of young, hot, rich-ish, mostly female thieves scale a fence, enter a Hollywood home through an unlocked sliding glass door, and — as loud, pulsing rock music plays — one turns to the other and giggles, “Let’s go shopping.” The credit sequence that follows is framed by conspicuous consumption: not just fetishistic product shots of the shoes, purses, and jewelry that they lift, but how those items are immediately incorporated into their online personae. A closet is opened, a loving close-up is delivered, and Coppola immediately cuts to the Facebook photo of the thief sporting said item. The members of the Bling Ring don’t rob for the pulse-quickening thrill of petty crime. They rob out of a sense of wealthy entitlement: go where you want, grab what you want, take and post a picture of yourself doing or wearing or waving it.
Our window into their world is Marc (Israel Broussard), a new student in the high school for the “troubled teens” of the rich Los Angeles suburbs. There, he meets Rebecca (Katie Chang) and Chloe (Claire Julien); through them, he meets Nicki (Emma Watson) and her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga). The latter duo don’t go to school with them — they’re home-schooled by Nicki’s mom (Leslie Mann), whose curriculum includes a dose of Adderall and an Angelia Jolie-based education centered on The Secret.
When Marc meets Rebecca, she’s already boosting wallets out of unlocked cars. Together, they realize that the breathless Internet reporting of celebs’ out-of-town activities and the ease of address googling make them pretty easy marks — especially since no one seems to have an alarm system, and everyone apparently has a case of cash, drugs, and other pleasures under the bed. The crimes are comically easy to execute: Paris Hilton, whose endless closets and “nightclub room” make her home a popular destination (“Let’s go to Paris’s. I wanna rob”), leaves a key under the doormat.
Coppola, who directed and wrote the script (from Nancy Jo Sales’s Vanity Fair article on the crew), gives the events a bubbly potency, seemingly and understandably drawn to the attractive, greedy foolishness of the characters. They are, when it comes down to it, horrible, vapid people, yet the film doesn’t view them purely as monsters, or as a sociological construct. Rebecca and especially Marc are, to a limited degree, figures of sympathy, and it’s difficult (in spite of every instinct to the contrary) not to be at least marginally seduced by this world of “beautiful, gorgeous things.”
Coppola’s aesthetic remains, at its heart, an anthropological one — she looks, from a distance (sometimes literally, as in an inventive scene that views one of their creepy-crawls in one full, wide shot of the entire glass home). And while the picture shares the sensuously sun-baked quality of Somewhere, the filmmaker has the good sense to know this time that she has to come at the vacuousness of her characters with some kind of an angle.
As such, she seems in awe of their presumed ingratiation. Even before they’ve been in their homes, they’re on a first-name basis with these people: it’s all “Lindsay got another DUI” or “Lindsay has this one” or “I literally love Audrina’s style” (best of all, when Rebecca finds out the victims have been contacted after her arrest, she has only one question: “What did Lindsay say?”). They think of themselves in the same terms, even when modified; at one point, Marc confesses, “I never saw myself as an A-list-looking guy.”
They see themselves in the same light as those celebrities because they live in the same city, because they go to the same clubs, because they have some kind of wealth and attractiveness. They don’t see the Paris Hiltons and Audrina Patridges and Heidi and Spencers as elevated from them in any way, and for good reason: it’s not like these people have some discernible talent that eludes their followers-turned-robbers. Hilton’s wealth was inherited, and what she earned came from people of equal vapidity who bought products and went to clubs because she endorsed them. No wonder the Bling Ring thought nothing of taking things from her — the way they saw it, that stuff was barely hers to begin with.
In one scene, after a trip to stately Hilton manor, Nicki proudly displays a newly acquired bracelet at a party. “Look what I got,” she announces. Not look what I stole — look what I “got.” It’s not that they didn’t know what they were doing was illegal. But it certainly didn’t strike them as immoral, since the world, for a certain kind of rich, attractive young person, is theirs for the taking. That’s the kind of thinking that, writ large, ends up sinking housing markets and, as a result, economies. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to giant bonuses for people who run sinking companies while low-level employees are “downsized.” And that’s the kind of thinking that causes a millionaire presidential candidate to spend months wondering how he could have lost his bid (and blaming weather and/or poor people) — he wanted it, so why couldn’t he have it?
The people who inspired The Bling Ring longed for celebrity, and its spoils. When their story came to an end, they were doing time in jail and paying giant penalties. But they’d also been photographed by paparazzi, featured on TMZ, and profiled in Vanity Fair. The case became the focus of Pretty Wild, a reality show featuring Alexis Neiers (who inspired the Watson character). And now, there’s a movie about their escapades. There are easier ways to get famous. Ask Paris Hilton.