Social Climbing by Stealing

Sofia Coppola's attack on the Audrina Partridge generation lacks sting

Contrary to popular belief, Paris Hilton is not famous for no reason. She's famous because people pay attention. That's the only reason that matters. What people drink up about Hilton and other celebrities is their high life: fashion, parties, fast cars and the VIP treatment. It's why some girls want to be princesses and some housewives want to be Real Housewives of (insert city here).

For many, this is all just a form of escapism, one that allows them to turn off the bullshit in their own worlds, watch whatever privileged lives are splashed all over the E! network for an hour, and quietly want more. And there's no crime in that until, of course, there is.

In 2008 and 2009, a group of Southern California teenagers got closer to Paris Hilton than anyone could have imagined. They learned when the celebutante would be out of town, tracked down her address on celebrity map websites and found a key under the doormat. Seriously. They didn't even need the key, as it turned out—Paris had left her house unlocked.

Ms. Hilton apparently didn't notice anything was amiss until the thieves had picked through her things maybe half a dozen times, stealing jewelry, clothes, shoes and cash, on one occasion walking out with nearly $2 million in merchandise. Empowered as teenagers are by getting away with it, the group moved on to other celebrities they adored, like Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom and Audrina Patridge.

Sofia Coppola brings the notorious Hollywood Hills Burglars to the screen in The Bling Ring, but it's hard to see why. Though the film is drenched in style, it walks a very thin line between glamorizing the crimes and making fun of the criminals. What's missing is Coppola's point, if there is one. But maybe that's precisely what she's after, making these snotty teenagers famous simply because they became stories on the news.

But there's a problem pointing fingers at a culture-obsessed environment if you're guilty of it, too, and that's the lasting impression given by Coppola's film. Serious drug problems are overlooked although the drug use is not. Oblivious parenting is everywhere, but merely for laughs. Even the consequences seem to have the sheen of that Hollywood magic. It's difficult to say whether Coppola, who had plenty of the fineries herself growing up, sees any victims or culprits in this at all.

As presented here, the thieves aren't stealing to steal; they're ripping off celebrities because they want to be like their icons. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all, but imitation fashion just won't do. So they aim for the real thing. The ringleader of the outfit (Katie Chang) persuades her high school's shy but resourceful new kid (Israel Broussard) to work out the logistics. Eventually, they're joined by a trio of club-hoppers (including Emma Watson, doing fine intentionally unintentional comedic work).

Even after security camera footage is released to the press—as it was by Audrina Patridge—the Bling Ring continues to throw caution to the wind: They don't wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints; they steal things people would obviously notice, like guns and artwork; and they never wear masks to hide their identities from the camera. Of course, in Coppola's world, maybe what they really want is to be on camera. After all, the teens regularly post their new goodies on Facebook and talk openly with classmates about whose house got hit.

The performances are largely shallow exercises. But then, these are largely shallow people. Chang and Broussard aren't particularly galvanizing, which would at least make us interested in their characters despite their actions. Watson continues to impress bit by bit, slowly distancing herself from Harry Potter. A good number of her scenes are with Leslie Mann, who's about as good a tag-team partner as you could hope for in a comedy. (But is this a comedy?) Mann plays Watson's hands-off, home-schooling mother, a woman whose life is guided by The Secret and other snake oil solutions.

Not lost in all of this is the transitory nature of fame itself. These events occurred less than five years ago, and when was the last time—even in tabloid circles—that Paris Hilton or Orlando Bloom was a headline? Even that point, which could be very easily made, doesn't make the final cut here. The Bling Ring has a lot more sizzle than it does steak, and Coppola's lack of clear perspective is troubling. But it's a fun fishbowl to peer into for a while, so long as you don't have a reason to look in the first place.

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