A deep dive into the
shallow end of the
criminality pool

It’s not really about the bling, but the Ring.

“The Bling Ring” is Sofia Coppola’s quiet masterwork, a powerful implication that many startling crimes have never happened simply because it never occurred to anyone to commit them.

Critics and moviegoers weren’t very impressed. Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times says it “ultimately leaves you feeling as empty as the lives it means to portray.” The film’s IMDB user rating is low. Actually “The Bling Ring” fizzled for two artificial reasons: It is a woman’s movie, and people are sick of reality TV stars. Those dismissing it on either account are making a mistake.

“Bling” is a great warning of group behavior and boredom. These kids are not disadvantaged. They hang out at celeb clubs. If they don’t drive a sports car, their friends do. They do not want for anything ... except a thrill. They relished not only the invasion of privacy and wearing the clothing and one-upping the star system, but sharing the discoveries. This is not the easiest motivation to define, an occasional struggle for prosecutors, legal systems and newspaper columnists.

“The Bling Ring” is a catchy title, but off-base. It’s clear the group is more into the clothes and the invasion of privacy than jewelry.

The film is based on a highly observant Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales titled “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.” That title is even more curious. It conveys a light perception toward home invasions that is shared even by at least one victim. It also is female-centric. Few males know what a Louboutin is. How it differs from other high-heeled shoes certainly won’t be guessed here. Probably not worth jail time, but ...

Some will point to “Bling” as evidence of the evils of drug abuse. These kids wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t high. Yet it’s an even greater indictment of ennui. The vast majority of human beings find that they get ahead through society’s economic system, which requires significant energy that typically prevents notions of law-breaking and law-bending from entering our consciousness. (The pair of movies titled “Fun with Dick & Jane” represent a Hollywood dramatic extreme.) For a certain subset, that’s not enough to stay on the straight and narrow. But only a small few are dangerous enough as individuals. The rest are fueled by some degree of encouragement. In this case, drugs aren’t enough of a high. It takes ... clothes.

Coppola’s magic touch is the light. Rarely is there a dark day in this universe. But this is not beautiful, lush Southern California. Cinematographers Harris Savides (who died shortly after and is given a tribute in the credits) and Christopher Blauvelt create a community bathed not in daylight, but spotlight, even on the beaches. There’s something not quite right. This is the glare, for a world where, if you actually believe you’re Paris Hilton’s peer, then you are.

Then there's the candy. What would it really be like to come home to Hilton’s place at night, no cameras, no publicity, no interference. What’s on the walls, in the closets. Lesser info than this fills newspaper gossip columns daily.

Very few films deserve to be longer than two hours. (Nevertheless, many are.) At an hour and a half, “Bling” is extraordinary value per minute. This is the fleeting nature of fame; these people deserve no more of our time.

Coppola changed the character names from the real-life crew. Certainly this allows additional artistic license. If not, perhaps the filmmakers would be sued by agents of Ring members, or perhaps Coppola simply doesn’t want to bestow the honors. But the script is very faithful to the story, cementing authenticity on this highly artificial scene.

Because Coppola adheres to the truth, we don’t get an outsized celebrity-stalker story that might well be entertaining. This is not Kathy Bates in “Misery.” The Ring has a dual fascination/disdain for its targets.

“Bling” is a coming-of-age tale of a directionless boy named Marc. (The fact it is a male should be controversial.) Marc, based on the real-life offender Nicholas Prugo, realizes that his attractive friends’ whims have led him astray. Whether he was actually leader or follower is subject of dispute. Uncertain of the truth, or too respective of denials, “Bling” unfortunately throws together a competing cluster of protagonists. It seems as though Katie Chang’s uninteresting Rebecca (based on Rachel Lee) is our Gordon Gekko figure, but that position is encroached by Emma Watson’s Nicki (channeling Alexis Neiers), who is brazen enough to attempt to funnel this spree into her fledgling TV career.

Prugo’s character is given the depth. He was the only one to issue mea culpas. (On his Twitter account, Prugo quotes the Spice Girls: “If you want my future, forget my past.”) While Israel Broussard’s face is a likely one of teen-angst films, it does not have the mark of Hollywood, limiting his diligent portrayal. The female characters, including that of Watson, are the one-note variety, though they spectacularly play the part.

Despite the film’s implications, the Ring did, according to accounts, conduct surveillance and plot its crimes with some degree of practice; it wasn’t quite as easy as portrayed.

Though it clearly was easy. They successfully hit Paris Hilton’s house five times and Rachel Bilson’s home six times in two months. (According to CNBC’s “American Greed,” the Ring invaded Hilton’s house “nearly 10 times over ... several weeks.”) Sales’ article and the movie imply a street-smart crew that failed to apply its talents in more productive ways. Los Angeles Detective Brett Goodkin, who is in the film, told “American Greed” that an “untold” number of crimes were committed by the crew before setting their sights on Paris Hilton.

“They were really good at doing burglaries,” Goodkin says.

This is no tragedy. Nearly all movies give even the most troubled teens a chance. “Fast Times” and “The Breakfast Club” provide enlightenment. In “Bling,” with the exception of Marc, the crew is incorrigible. A few are hardened delinquents. They’ve had regular schooling and alternative schooling. Society’s remedies haven’t worked. They’ve lived under the roofs of unknowing parents, especially Leslie Mann’s Laurie, a reactionary mother who home-schools her kids about Angelina Jolie but whose methods are not moving the needle. A life of trouble — upper-class suburban style — is undoubtedly ahead.

Marc has not yet lost his conscience. Rebecca is oblivious to the danger of what they’re doing. Marc is not. Presumably Rebecca has some prior experience in these endeavors. Still, she appears unwilling to try it without Marc present. We’re shown Rebecca coaxing Marc into illegality. He’s not inclined to open car doors nor linger long in Paris Hilton’s mansion. “We gotta go,” he constantly says while not quite believing that himself. Together, they learn quickly. Only when they start bragging up celebrities does Nicki get interested.

Coppola masters the nuances. Marc makes an offhand reference early in the film that a boy he knows is “hot,” and we instantly understand (presumably Marc is gay; he may not be) why he is intrigued with this particular endeavor.

Nicki and Sam are shown sleeping in the same bed. They sort of act like sisters but are not. There is an edge to this family. Sexy, adventurous, different, unapologetic. (This opening matches that of Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” — a young woman in underwear. The sex appeal of Coppola’s films is modest, charming. When a female brandishes a gun, it stops far short of the sexy extreme in “Spring Breakers.”)

One of the Ring’s assets — it is uncomfortable to use that term — was its familiarity with the club scene. Most people would be nervous just shaking hands with Hilton. The Ring is not interested in social climbing. Here, megacelebs are rivals, not idols.

In real life and in the movie, the turning point was hitting Lindsay Lohan’s home and being detected on surveillance video. The movie at the halfway point suggests the ice was melting when cameras catch them at the home of Orlando Bloom. They should’ve been caught when Audrina Patridge distributed her own surveillance video of the crew. But out of security/police ineptitude, they get away with that one. “After the Audrina thing, nothing happened,” Marc says. Sales’ article states that after the release of this video to TMZ, the crew “miraculously” was not detected.

A tremendous question can be inferred from “The Bling Ring” — why would a wealthy celebrity’s home be so easy to break into?

There is one great answer. Celebs don’t want anything to do with police. They’ll do the gated neighborhood and perhaps little more. A burglar alarm is tripped, and then the cops come with carte blanche to check things out. TMZ shows up. Embarrassing things might be found.

There also are several decent answers against elaborate private security. It costs money. Younger celebrities aren’t always rich. Many celebs have multiple residences. You don’t want guards watching surveillance of you all day. They might harass your friends.

“Bling” evokes distant parallels to another movie about television — “Network,” the 1976 dark comedy warning of the appeal of TV shock — and schlock — and what it says about ourselves.

“The Bling Ring” makes such an observation from 360 degrees. It is not implied that TV viewers are demanding to see live burglaries of celebrity homes. It is implied that our shallowness catches up with us, that people become famous for seemingly nothing and if so, they will attract remorseless enemies who almost view themselves as doing the world a favor. Sales writes that Prugo indicated the crew had no qualms with targeting Hilton because she “didn’t really contribute to society.”

Several of the victims are known for cable TV shows. All have considerable substance in the pop culture market. Sales writes that all of the Ring’s female victims were on the cover of Maxim. They are best linked by their age and by that intangible known as TMZ.

“Bling” also evokes some parallels with “The Falcon and the Snowman,” a 1980s film featuring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn as inept California lawbreakers who seem more motivated by whim than greed. They’re bored, and they can do it. So they did. There is raw instinct here enabling them to get as far as they do. But they are still embarrassingly amateur, leading to their capture.

It would be a mistake to buy the implication of “The Bling Ring” that the Internet makes celebrities vulnerable to criminals. Residency information was knowable before the Web; some folks even sell guides to celebrity homes in Beverly Hills. Finding addresses of young stars who have not yet accumulated serious wealth must be much easier with the Internet but likely not impossible for elite clubgoers.

Admiring celebs is one thing. Few people would think that the easiest way to get a Paris Hilton wardrobe is to take the stuff right out of her closet.

Rebecca guesses correctly of Hilton, “I bet she leaves the keys under her mat.”

Unfortunately, they can’t just get their thrill and leave. They steal. Had they not, viewers would wish for Hilton to walk in on the intruders and not bust them but give them the grand tour. Winging it, Hollywood style.

Coppola gives the cops a break. One wonders whether the busts can even be credited to police work; Lindsay Lohan’s video did the trick. The officers are portrayed as stern, no-nonsense, celebrity-indifferent. They treat these cases like a double homicide, a stark departure from Whoopi Goldberg’s Pasadena crew in “The Player.”

Yet it’s curious that Rebecca is questioned without being read rights. She denies everything, then says, “If I tell you where everything is, would you let me go?”

A lot of movies portray people who don’t deserve a Hollywood portrayal. (Think of Martin Scorsese’s recent “The Wolf of Wall Street.”) They still have something to teach us.

Marc observes in the film that “America has this sick fascination with a Bonnie-and-Clyde kind of thing.” On one level, barely addressed in the film, it’s petty burglary that has nothing to do with Bonnie and Clyde. Once celebs are victimized, it’s elevated to a Southern California thing, a crime of opportunity. Coppola chooses to view it in the sphere of pop culture and not famous criminality, making no attempt to rank the Ring among infamous lawbreakers.

The winners in “The Bling Ring” are never shown. Those are Hollywood’s countless other 20-something females whom the Ring, lacking the wherewithal to do this long term, never reached.

Paris Hilton appears as herself in the movie and, demonstrating remarkable comfort level with this crime, even allowed Coppola to film in her home.

Hilton said after seeing the film that she wanted to “slap” the Ring members.

She might just consider herself lucky.

Four decades earlier, a group of attractive young adults at odds with society entered a Hollywood celebrity’s home and collectively committed one of the worst monstrosities in American history.

That crew had counterculture. Today’s Ring had TMZ.

John Huston’s signature line from “Chinatown” (coincidentially or not, another Southern California film) tells us that human beings, in certain situations, are capable of anything.

Coppola’s signature revelation is a brief reference from Nicki that is, incredibly, true. She actually had jail time with Lohan. At least it’s something to do.

4 stars
(August 2015)

“The Bling Ring” (2013)
Starring: Emma Watson as Nicki ♦ Israel Broussard as Marc ♦ Katie Chang as Rebecca ♦ Claire Julien as Chloe ♦ Taissa Farmiga as Sam ♦ Georgia Rock as Emily ♦ Leslie Mann as Laurie ♦ Carlos Miranda as Rob ♦ Gavin Rossdale as Ricky ♦ Stacy Edwards as Marc’s Mom ♦ G. Mac Brown as Henry ♦ Marc Coppola as Mr. Hall — Marc’s Dad ♦ Janet Song as Rebecca’s Mom ♦ Annie Fitzgerald as Kate from Vanity Fair ♦ Lorenzo Hunt as Police Officer #1 (Nicki’s) ♦ Timothy Starks as Police Officer #1 (Marc’s) ♦ Rich Ceraulo as Police Officer #2 (Nicki’s) ♦ Joe Nieves as Police Officer (Rebecca’s) ♦ Nelson Rockford as Las Vegas Plainclothes Officer ♦ Doug DeBeech as Adam ♦ Erin Daniels as Shannon ♦ Patricia Lentz as Judge Henley ♦ Michelle Alegria as Female TV Reporter #1 ♦ Stacey Turner as Female TV Reporter #2 ♦ Brian Gattas as Dogwalker ♦ Logan Miller as Kid at Party ♦ Marcia Ann Burrs as Grandma ♦ Michael Yo as Male E-Interviewer ♦ Halston Sage as School Girl ♦ Marshall Bell as L.A. Detective #1 ♦ Brenda Koo as Sarah ♦ Maika Monroe as Beach Girl ♦ Isabel Lasker as Drunk Girl ♦ Adea Lennox as Party Girl ♦ Keenan Henson as Male TMZ Reporter ♦ Rachelle Carson-Begley as Chloe’s Mom ♦ Peter Bigler as Chloe’s Dad ♦ Chad Brannon as Water Delivery Guy ♦ Zoe Sidel as School Girl’s Friend ♦ Cari Champion as Female TV Reporter #3 ♦ Nina Siemaszko as Las Vegas Detective (female) ♦ Bailey Coppola as Wasted Boy ♦ Yolanda Lloyd Delgado as Rob’s Mom ♦ Linc Hand as Police Officer Arresting Rob ♦ Brett Goodkin as L.A. Detective #2 ♦ Paris Hilton as Paris Hilton ♦ Kevin Spencer as Bedroom Police Officer #1 ♦ Bobby Ashhurst as Police Officer #3 ♦ Karl Risinger as Police Officer #2 (Marc’s) ♦ Dale Champion as School Teacher

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

Written by: Sofia Coppola, based on the Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales

Producer: Sofia Coppola
Producer: Roman Coppola
Producer: Youree Henley
Co-producer: Darren Demetre
Executive producer: Francis Ford Coppola
Executive producer: Emilio Diez Barroso
Executive producer: Darlene Caamano Loquet
Executive producer: Paul Rassam
Executive producer: Fred Roos
Executive producer: Mike Zakin

Cinematography: Harris Savides, Christopher Blauvelt
Editing: Sarah Flack
Casting: Nicole Daniels, Courtney Sheinin
Production design: Anne Ross
Art direction: Kevin Bird
Set decoration: Sara Parks
Costumes: Stacey Battat
Makeup and hair: Roz Music, Shelley Brien, Gillian Whitlock, Sha Page, Ellen Vieira
Unit production manager: Darren M. Demetre
Post-production supervisor: Stuart Macphee
Stunts: Nash Edgerton, Anne G. Agathe, Chris O’Hara
Thanks: Mom, Dad, Paris Hilton, Stephen Dorff, Peter Oberth, Kanye West
Dedicated to: Harris Savides


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