What it came down to in the end were "the beautiful, gorgeous things."
That's how Marc (Israel Broussard) explains the Bling Ring, a gang of teens who, over a span of 10 months in 2008 and 2009, robbed a series of celebrity homes, including those of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom. Along the way, they accrued more than $3 million worth of jewelry, clothing and accessories — not to mention that inevitable tabloid-headline nickname.
While Sofia Coppola's big-screen version of their story alludes to celebrity worship and faulty parenting as possible fuel for the spree, she comes back most often to the pull of Chanel and Gucci, and ultimately to Marc's words, delivered in the tone of a person who, even after getting caught, still sinks into a daydream when thinking of the spoils he used to crave.
The Bling Ring takes Coppola back to turf she's covered in all her films —the territory of enervating affluence — and the film's best moments demonstrate just how skilled she's become at conveying material longing, even when such yearnings have reached the realm of the perverse.
Apart from changing the characters' names, Coppola sticks closely to the details of the Vanity Fair article on which her script is based, starting with the break-in at Bloom's home that would eventually get the group caught, and then turning back to the origins of the story, on the night Marc and future ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang) rob Paris Hilton's home on a whim. Soon, they're joined by a group of girls including the ditzy Nicki (Emma Watson), her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Rebecca's friend Chloe (Claire Julien).
As the story of a gang of four women and one man reveling in a life of manic partying and crime, the film naturally invites comparisons to Spring Breakers. But Bling Ring has none of the overstimulation of Harmony Korine's film, nor does it pride itself on its vulgarity in quite the same way. Its pacing and tone are far from hallucinogenic, staying true to the languid style that has served Coppola well in her previous films.
Going back to Lost in Translation — though most prominently in 2010's Somewhere — Coppola has consistently emphasized the ennui that can come with addiction to opulence. In this case, it's the Bling Ring's break-ins that come to feel monotonous. In spite of their daring nature and high-profile targets, Coppola rarely portrays them with any urgency or a sense of danger; one robbery elides into another, as do the parties that follow the burglaries. Banality sets in — as it did in Coppola's Versailles in Marie Antoinette — as Rebecca's rationale for stealing from the next celebrity is reduced to "I like her style" or "I want some Chanel."
In her previous films, Coppola mostly reserved judgment on her privileged characters; the same is true, at least to begin with, in The Bling Ring, though the teenagers, with their affected speech and their total disconnect from any reality other than their own, might make easy targets for derision. For the first two-thirds of the film, though, Coppola gives the kids the benefit of the doubt — even drawing out the more charming aspects of their youth. Broussard plays Marc with a near-constant goofy grin, and Watson manages to imbue Nicki with a sweet insecurity that helps balance, and perhaps explain, what can be an annoying petulance.
The snag comes in the film's third act, when Coppola leans harder on the story's who-thinks-like that? notes. It's an easy direction to take, as it was for Nancy Jo Sales in her Vanity Fair article; for the most part, the quotes from Bling Ring members do all the work. But the shift in tone feels too much like mockery; the film is most effective when it remains more curious than cynical.
In one wonderful sequence, for example, Coppola shows Nicki delicately stroking Lindsay Lohan's jewelry while Rebecca blissfully savors the smell of Lohan's perfume in another room. It's in moments like these — quiet shots marked by emotional exactitude — that the film delivers the best experience. Which is to say that it's when Coppola lets the beautiful, gorgeous things retain their sparkle that The Bling Ring shines most brightly.