In her films, writer/director Sofia Coppola likes to show characters that are symbolically lost in a haze. They’re listlessly adrift, headed for a destination they’re not sure about.
Her films are rich with atmosphere. She slowly lets her camera linger on long takes and uses deliberate pacing. Her style can either enhance her films (“Lost in Translation,” for which she won a writing Oscar) or suffocate them (“Somewhere”).
Some of those trademarks are easily visible in her fifth film, “The Bling Ring,” though they are somewhat muted here. She mostly takes a candid approach — this is about as close to straightforward storytelling she has ever done.
The results are mixed. She certainly delivers a fine film, but not a wholly satisfying one. Her camera still lingers on the subjects, but passively so, never delving below the surface. And that doesn’t always make for compelling cinema.
It’s a fascinating story, based on a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales that Coppola read while on a plane. It was an essay on a group of Los Angeles suburban teens who made international headlines after breaking into homes and stealing more than $3 million in jewelry and luxury goods from such stars as Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson and Audrina Patridge.
So the film is based on actual events, though Coppola’s interpretation of the characters and their motivations is entirely her own. She uses the backdrop of the story for a bigger-picture analysis, turning it into a commentary on how today’s society — particularly easily impressionable teens — is obsessed with red-carpet culture and much-privileged celebrity.
We follow Marc (Israel Broussard) as he transfers to a new high school in the San Fernando Valley. He soon becomes friends with Rebecca (Katie Chang), and they start hanging out together after school. He meets her circle of friends that includes Chloe (Claire Julien), Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Nicki (a very un-Harry Potter-like Emma Watson, the only really known young actor here).
As all teens do, Marc and Rebecca get bored. And since they follow their favorite celebrities’ every move via social media, they know that Paris Hilton is going to be out of town because she’s hosting a party somewhere.
That means she won’t be home. Marc finds her address, which is as easy as entering her name into Google. It even pops up with a map of how to get there. When they arrive at Hilton’s house, they discover getting in is as easy as looking under the front door rug, where they find a spare key.
Once inside, they rummage through Hilton’s clothes and jewelry, but then leave when Marc begins to get nervous. Rebecca steals a bracelet on the way out. Hilton has so much stuff, she won’t know the difference, right?
But once they didn’t get caught and Hilton was none the wiser, Rebecca had the itch to go do it again. So they do, with the rest of their friends in tow, who take to Hilton’s party room for a night of drinking and smoking marijuana.
After that, they break into other celebrities’ homes, stealing increasingly more stuff, almost as if the crimes were becoming an addiction. But eventually, they are discovered through security cameras and must face the consequences.
The characters are vacuous and self-obsessed, always taking pictures of themselves and posting them online. But Coppola has made them so shallow they’re almost uninteresting. And we never understand why Rebecca is so cooly blase about the risk of getting caught. She calmly tells everyone to “chill out.”
Coppola shows us these people, but doesn’t really let us get to know them. We are unsympathetic. “The Bling Ring” ultimately becomes a commentary that doesn’t really say anything, a detached study of the haves and have-nots in a digital age when everyone is somehow connected, but only on a surface level.