Everything's relative. And so, given that the film currently ruling the box office is about Americans encouraged by their own government to indulge their homicidal urges one night a year — we're talking about "The Purge" — it's tempting to hail the clueless young burglars in "The Bling Ring," by comparison, as veritable humanitarians.
After all, they're not out to kill or even hurt anyone. All they want is your designer shoes, your cute tops, your Rolex watches, jewelry, credit cards and cash.
And unless you're a fashionable young Hollywood celebrity, they'll probably leave you alone anyway, because you're not cool enough to rip off.
Not that Sofia Coppola's latest film, based on a true story about a band of affluent, celebrity-obsessed teen burglars in suburban Los Angeles, isn't chilling. It is, and not only because it displays the soulless nature of our fame-obsessed youth culture. It's also the fact that Coppola doesn't judge these kids. It's an intentional choice, and perhaps an artful one, but it makes the whole enterprise a little depressing. You think, couldn't we have had just a BIT of condemnation here?
Coppola bases her movie on a 2010 Vanity Fair article about the so-called Bling Ring, a group of mostly 19-year-olds who between October 2008 and August 2009 stole some $3 million in jewelry and designer goods (plus a semi-automatic handgun) from the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom and others.
Besides these kids' stunning lack of awareness that they were actually, like, committing crimes, and might actually, like, get caught, and go to, like, jail (which they eventually did), what's stunning about the story is how easy the crimes were to commit. The burglars used sites like TMZ to determine whether celebs were away from home. Addresses were readily available, and Google Earth showed the gates and doors. And many people, it seems, leave doors open — or as Hilton did, leave keys under the mat.
The film unfolds almost like a documentary, with scene after scene of the burglaries, hewing close to the facts. It gets a little repetitive, and we see little real character development.
On the plus side, it's obvious that Coppola knows this milieu, what these kids wear and the way they speak. Friends are "homies" and "bitches," and everything is "chill." Unless it's "sick." As in, that fur vest is "so sick." ''I know, right?"
Coppola has chosen newcomers for her leads: Israel Broussard as Marc, the new-kid-at-school who needs friends, and Katie Chang as Rebecca, a danger-loving hottie who lures him into crime (names have been changed.)
And she gives her most famous cast member, Emma Watson, a supporting role — at least until the last third of the film, when she takes center stage. She's by far the most fun to watch. What happened to the brainy and earnest Hermione? She's gone, and Watson gives a smart performance here, whether pole-dancing in Hilton's "nightclub room" or uttering, in perfect Valleyspeak, lines that depict her character's moral vapidity better than any screenwriter could — because they're authentic.
More good news: the cinematography (Harris Savides, who sadly died just after making this film, is credited along with Christopher Blauvelt.) A lovely, long shot from afar of a house being ransacked at night, lights blinking on and off in windows, darkened figures running from room to room, is the most haunting in the film — a sudden pause, giving us time to realize that this stuff isn't really funny, and to imagine how violated we'd feel if this were our own home and closets.
And speaking of closets: Hilton allowed Coppola to film in hers, and they're something to see, from kitschy pillows emblazoned with Hilton's own image to the almost cartoonish piles of glittering jewelry and racks of clothes and shoes. Kudos to Coppola for this touch of reality: Hilton's home looks just like you'd imagine, only so much more so.
In fact, it's totally sick. I know, right?
"The Bling Ring," an A24 Films release, is rated R for teen drug and alcohol use, and for language including some brief sexual references. Running time: 90 minutes. Three stars out of four.