‘The Bling Ring’: Lost generation

June 13, 2013

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Imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery. But what if you want to imitate someone so badly that you’re willing to steal from them? Where does that fall on the sincerity meter?

That’s just one of the issues raised in Sofia Coppola’s drily witty and up-to-the-minute film, “The Bling Ring.” Based on the Vanity Fair account of a group of teen burglars who robbed the homes of stars in the Hollywood Hills, Coppola’s film not only tells their story but burrows deep into a social strata that seems to float just below the surface of everyday consciousness.

Those of us in the reality-based world are aware that social media on the Internet have created an alternate universe, one that exists whether you’re plugged into it or not. Millenials live in worlds of texts, tweets and other postings that their parents have no clue about; even careful, tuned-in parents are not nearly wired enough to keep up.

The parents of the characters in “The Bling Ring” checked out long ago. They’re absentee or they’re simply so self-absorbed that they can’t see their own kids for what they are. That’s true, for example, of the family unit headed by Leslie Mann, who home-schools her daughter Nicki (Emma Watson) and Nicki’s friend Sam (Taissa Farmiga), who she’s sort-of adopted – but Mom’s main textbook is Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret.”

Nicki and Sam are among the queen bees of a small party-hard clique of friends at a Calabasas high school for underachievers or behavioral problems. The real leader seems to be Rebecca (Katie Chang), a child of divorce who befriends new kid Marc (Israel Broussard) on his first day at the high school.

Rebecca tantalizes Marc with her bad behavior, even as she offers him a friend in a new school who won’t judge him for being gay but not quite out. She, in turn, provides a corrupting influence: When they leave a party together one night, she gets him to join her in checking the doors on parked cars. When they find one unlocked, she quickly searches it for valuables, then moves on. Before long, he’s joined the game. Anyone dumb enough to leave a key in the car will find it missing when they return.

Before long, Rebecca is telling Marc stories of her adventures sneaking into the homes of friends she knows aren’t home. When he tells her he has a buddy whose family is out of town, she gets him to take her there. They casually walk in, search the house for valuables and leave with cash, jewelry and the keys to the Porsche sitting in the driveway.

They spend their evenings with their friends, hanging out at the hot clubs in Hollywood, where the stars gather. It’s a world full of people who seem to spend their time looking at their smartphones, or using them to take pictures of other people in the room.

One bored evening, Rebecca tells Marc she’s seen an item on the Internet announcing a party that Paris Hilton will be hosting in Las Vegas that night. A quick scan of the Web produces a street address for Hilton’s Hollywood Hills mansion – at which point they decide to see if they can break in.

They don’t need to; the key is under the mat. This leads to more after-hours forays to unoccupied homes of the rich and famous; the under-age burglars find that most stars carelessly leave a sliding door or a window – or a doggy-door – unlocked.

Before long, this little crime-spree has become the extracurricular activity of choice for this nervy but none-too-bright group. Because they never seem to run into burglar alarms, it’s only much later that they think about little things like security cameras and fingerprints.

Not that the cops need them; these criminals brag to each other online about their exploits and the riches they’ve taken, posting photos on Facebook and elsewhere of themselves wearing the jewels and fashions they’ve stolen from people like Orlando Bloom and Audrina Patridge.

Coppola never comments on how shallow, calculating and narcissistic these characters are. She lets them condemn themselves – and their parents, who seem invisible right up until the cops come knocking on the door – with their delusional and self-serving explanations of who they are and what they’ve been up to.

Ambitions? These particular outlaws seem to want nothing more than to discover the secret to living life as an eternal party, a la Paris Hilton. (Hint: If her last name wasn’t Hilton, she’d be a lot more like you than you think.) Sure, they want a career of some kind – they’d like to be leaders but they have no idea what they want to lead or why.

The humor arises unexpectedly out their blend of naivete and willful ignorance. Yet, like Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” and Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” this is a film about a world in which the bottom has already dropped out and the partying animals just don’t know it. They’re working harder and harder to have less and less fun.

With her constantly pounding soundtrack beats and a group of characters who act out the definition of the words “aimless” and “self-obsessed,” Coppola tries to engage us in a story of people we should not only NOT care about but who we should actively dislike.

You can’t help but engage. At least I couldn’t.

“The Bling Ring” is like a snapshot of a social order we seldom see, one in which not a single character could answer the question, “What exactly do you think you’re doing?”

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